In early July, as COVID-19 cases surged in the Rio Grande Valley and hospital beds filled with patients struggling to breathe, Congressman Filemon Vela reached out to his lifelong friend, Robert Rodriguez, for help. It wasn’t long before Rodriguez, a Harvard Medical School graduate and Brownsville native, was on the phone with the CEO of Valley Baptist Medical Center, the hospital where he was born, making arrangements for what would become a grueling two-week tour of duty in the intensive care unit.
“Codes all day long,” said Rodriguez, describing the experience using the hospital jargon for patients in need of immediate resuscitation. During a recent phone call from the University of California San Francisco, where he’s a professor of emergency medicine, he remembered the 240-bed Brownsville hospital reaching a peak of 160 active cases of COVID-19 during his time there, 50 or 60 of them requiring ICU-level care. “We’d be running from code to code, trying to resuscitate and keep patients alive.”
The experience proved personally taxing for Rodriguez, but it helped prepare him for his next undertaking. A few weeks ago, he was named to President-elect Joe Biden’s COVID-19 advisory board, and was touted in the announcement not only as an emergency medicine doctor on the front lines of the fight against COVID, but also as an author and researcher who has recently examined the mental health impact of that fight on frontline workers. He joins twelve others, including a former surgeon general, a former FDA commissioner, the executive director of the Global Health Council, and several other top public health experts and medical academics. Their role will be to advise Biden and his transition team in implementing a plan to control the coronavirus once in office, a task that has grown even more crucial in recent weeks as cases have surged nationwide. Despite his other obligations, Rodriguez says he’ll devote significant time to task force work, viewing it as critically important.
“I’m on the team to provide expertise and frontline perspective in terms of emergency medicine and critical care,” said Rodriguez, who tends to a steady flow of COVID patients at a pair of trauma centers in San Francisco. “And to address the needs of a large segment of the population whose only health care occurs through emergency departments.”
That segment includes the uninsured, and Texas has the highest uninsured rate in the nation, 18.4 percent last year, double the national average. In Cameron County, home to Brownsville, that rate is worse yet. About 30.2 percent of the county’s population under age 65 doesn’t have insurance, according to the latest Census Bureau estimates. Compare that with 4.8 percent in San Francisco County, an area Rodriguez first became acquainted with 25 years ago when he took a critical care fellowship at nearby Stanford Medical Center. Having spent his formative years in the Valley and most of his career in the affluent Bay Area of California, Rodriguez is in a unique position to speak to how the availability of medical resources affects successful fights against diseases.
Rodriguez loves his hometown and plans to return to live in Texas within the next five years. Much of his family—three siblings and something like thirty or more cousins—remain in the Valley. That includes his father, Joe Rodriguez, a member of the Texas High School Football Hall of Fame both as a coach and athletic director. His mother, Emma, was a high school science teacher who used to forgo bedtime stories to instead read the periodic table to her son when he was a child. She died six years ago after a stay in the same ICU where Rodriguez spent part of this summer combatting the pandemic. Joe and Emma produced a science-loving boy who went off to Notre Dame and decided to become a doctor after volunteering in a hospital emergency department. He went from college in South Bend, Indiana, to Harvard in Boston, then shot across the country for a five-year combined emergency medicine and internal medicine residency at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles before heading to Stanford.
Now with three young-adult children of his own, Rodriguez never imagined that his vocation would eventually take him back to Brownsville to face the bleak reality he saw there last summer. During the first week of July, Cameron County was averaging about 100 new cases a day. By early August, the county topped 1,000 new cases for each of three straight days, peaking at 331 new COVID patients per 100,000 population, compared with much-larger Dallas County’s peak of 64 cases per 100,000. More than 50 people were dying each week during August.
Rodriguez’s two weeks at Valley Baptist Medical Center were unlike anything else he’d faced in his career. The hospital’s resources were overrun, falling short on necessary supplies and medication. The patients were some of the sickest he has ever seen, some of them in their thirties or forties. “There was just not enough time to really attend to all the patients,” he says. “It was a very overwhelming situation.”
Adding to the strain of this daily fight, two friends of Rodriguez’s died as a result of COVID-19 while he was in Brownsville. He knew as well as anyone just how brutal the pandemic would be to their loved ones. “Some of those that die in the ICU, they basically die without their family members being able to hold their hands or pray over them,” he says. “Those kinds of images—of essentially death, of death alone—still haunt me.”
Although these memories of acute suffering have stayed with him, his time in Brownsville also offered Rodriguez a reminder of what he loves about the Valley. He’d finish his hospital shift around sunset, and many days as he left, he’d see about a dozen people settled under a palm tree in the parking lot, surrounded by photos of patients inside the building. They were clearly grieving, but also singing hymns in Spanish and English to lift the spirits of the medical workers leaving work. “It just touched me a lot,” he says. That inspiration is one more asset Rodriguez says he’s carrying with him as he does his part to help the incoming Biden administration combat the pandemic.