The Wilson Quarterly spoke with a number of those involved in battling COVID-19 or covering its impact through a dark and challenging winter. Dr. Carmen Zorrilla spoke with Alex Long.
Dr. Carmen Zorrilla--an OBGYN and full professor affiliated with the University of Puerto Rico (UPR)'s School of Medicine--has been training for the past 40 years for the moment that the COVID-19 pandemic emerged.
Specifically, it was her deep involvement in care for those who have contracted HIV that helped prepare her for new challenges. "I started the first prenatal screening program for HIV back in 1986 while I was pregnant," she recalls. "And I started taking care of pregnant women with HIV while I was pregnant. For me, that was very personal. I had a healthy baby while some of my patients had babies that died of AIDS."
Zorrilla's work on HIV helped change the political landscape for patients, as she advocated for measures including universal testing, access to AZT, and closer monitoring of pregnancies. She says HIV has motivated and transformed many of those who worked on it: "If you've met people who work on HIV, you will know that they not only are scientists they become activists and educators."
Before the outbreak of COVID-19, Zika had become Zorrilla's new focus, especially because of the stigmas associated with pregnancies that result in birth defects. She wrote about parallels between her work with HIV and Zika patients, and her harrowing account of surgical practices during Hurricane Maria was published in The New England Journal of Medicine.
Zorrilla was eager to meet the challenge of this new pandemic. She set up a testing program on UPR's medical campus, as well as a community advisory board. Yet the looming need that she foresaw was for vaccine trials.
Her experience and expertise meant that she wanted to be in the thick of the battle. So she started reaching out to medical students and staff. "I decided that I wanted to be part of a COVID vaccine trial whenever that would come, because I've done HIV vaccine phase one and two clinical trials," she recalls. "So I started working with my team on an implementation plan. In case there was a vaccine, we would be ready to implement."
Zorrilla says that the toll of COVID-19 was made clear to her very quickly when a former patient died from the virus. This woman had attended a family gathering on Father's Day. Ten days later, the virus had claimed not only her life but that of her aunt and her father as well. A conversation with the patient's sister, in which she recounted her experience of her father's final moments spent on a telephone, left her shaken.
"We are dying alone," she says. "They are dying alone. They are still dying alone ... That's my motivation for wearing a mask and all of that. I don't want to be in a bed without anybody, any of my friends or my daughter.... To me, that's the scariest...