Dr. Mauricio Heilbron (aka Dr. Mo) is a Trauma Surgeon and Vice Chief of Staff at St. Mary’s Medical Center. Due to COVID-19, the Emergency Room’s have been incredibly overwhelmed as ICU’s and various floors continue to pack up with COVID patients. Dr. Mo works day and night to help his patients recover in a comfortable manner, no matter the circumstances. Salonpas sat down with Dr. Mo to learn more about his life as a Wellness Warrior:
What is your biggest surprise, or key learning/takeaway, working as a doctor during the pandemic? Are many people avoiding the doctor altogether to ‘stay out of the fray
My biggest surprise, working as a doctor, during the pandemic, is encountering this seething mistrust that many people have for doctors and nurses and scientists and hospitals. My colleagues and I have all felt that somehow “we” are the “bad guys” and not this disease… despite the signs everywhere calling us “heroes.” We aren’t necessarily “heroes.” We are doing, or at least trying to do, our jobs, our professions, our calling. All of us, whether it be doctors, nurses, respiratory technicians or hospital housekeepers. The lack of support from our local communities, our corporate/hospital administration and our federal government is disheartening. We never expected anything like this all-while facing the greatest public health/medical crisis in a hundred years.
What was your inspiration for becoming a surgeon?
As a young boy, like many other young boys, I just wanted to grow up and be like my dad. My father was a surgeon, who practiced here, in the same hospital, in Long Beach, California, for nearly fifty years. In elementary school, kids are often asked what they want to be when they grow up, and their answers both reflect their era, and their fanciful, innocent dreams. In the mid-70’s, those answers were things like astronauts and baseball players, but my answer was “doctor” because that vocation had that same magical quality to it.
By the time I reached junior high, and on into high school, it was clear I was a pretty good student. I tell my patients I was as smart as am I now, back in fourth grade. That probably made me technically a “genius” back then, but I plateaued really early. If you were considered one of the better students in your class, medicine was one of the expected career paths you were supposed to take. I was fine with that. The puzzle pieces were coming together nicely.
In college, while taking my pre-med classes, I flirted with the idea of being a record producer, or being a musician…playing piano in one of those bars where everybody sings along having the best time ever. I had a large record collection and started DJing little parties in the dorms, and thought maybe I could do something along those lines. Then I became a Resident Assistant…an “RA”, and I realized that I liked taking care of people. I was exceptionally good at taking care of people. I was good at handling crises both minor, like roommate squabbles, and major, like attempted (but thankfully unsuccessful) suicides.
I learned how to counsel my slightly younger residents in issues ranging from classroom struggles to ethnic/cultural clashes, family problems, drugs and alcohol, sexual needs and conflicts. My “kids” felt comfortable talking to me and I felt like they just needed someone to listen. I liked being that guy and “that guy” should probably be a doctor. I was lucky enough to get into a good medical school in the Midwest, lucky in that not only did I get a great education, but that I spent four years in a place completely different than Southern California. Different weather, different attitudes. different customs, different people. It made me a better person, not just a smarter one.
My father suggested I look into all the various specialties during my time there…cardiology, anesthesiology, pediatrics or emergency room. By the time my four years were up, I had already figured who I was, not what I “wanted to be”, but who I was and who I am to this day. I’m a surgeon, just like my dad.
Given the priority to COVID-19 patients, what should people with underlying medical conditions do at this time? Should they delay treatment?
There is no “priority” for COVID patients. The priority is for the sickest patients. If you have COVID, then yes you get priority. If you get shot in the abdomen, then you get priority. Underlying conditions, whether they are chronic or have developed recently, need to be addressed independent of the pandemic.That’s a big part of trying to get the public to understand one of the key problems here- just because COVID is around, doesn’t mean everything else went away. Everything else is still making people sick; now we have the additional COVID patients on top of that.
What advice do you have for people during COVID-19 to best avoid getting the disease, and what to do if they suspect they are sick?
Best advice to avoid getting the disease? Masks number one. Social distance number two. Wash your hands number three. In that order of importance and effectiveness. Pretty simple. Doing those things can almost eliminate your chance of getting COVID. Not sure why there’s this huge resistance to that. (I understand that there is a huge economic and socio-political side to this question. But those issues are not for me to weigh in on. I’m a physician. I can tell you how to stay safe. I cannot tell you how to pay your bills, or homeschool, or the other thousands of catastrophic things that this pandemic has wreaked upon our society. Those questions, and the solutions to the questions, can only be fully answered by our elected leadership. They have that power. My only power is to beg you to wear a mask.)
Please describe a typical day in your life; from when you arise to when you retire.
I have no typical day. I’m a general, trauma and vascular surgeon. I’m in solo practice.
Some days I see patients in my office.
Some days I’m in the operating room, in two different hospitals, or in a surgicenter somewhere.
Some days it’s all of the above.
Some days I’m on call for trauma surgery, where I reside within a hospital for 24 hours, attending to the most severely injured who present to our Emergency Room. So sometimes, I don’t “retire” for 24-36 hours.
Some days I’m on vascular surgery call- where I get called when someone has an emergent problem that only somebody like me can fix. You have an aneurysm you didn’t know about, and now it popped, or a bullet shreds your femoral artery. You need to go on dialysis, like, now. You are having little strokes from a partial blockage in an artery in your neck. You will need a guy like me.
Some days I’m on backup trauma call, where if things really hit the fan, I need to go help out.
This means I’m on call 20+ days a month on top of always being available for my patients.
I have worked every day since February 9th. Except one.. my birthday. I haven’t worked this hard nor this endlessly (with additional stressors that no one could have ever fully predicted)in my life.
I have my son every other week, so every moment I get to go home I aim to spend with him (even though he’s a 17 year old who tends to not want to hang out with “Dad” as much as “Dad” wants to hang out with him). I also recently got remarried, a few months before the pandemic hit. I’m exceedingly fortunate to be in this shutdown/quarantine with someone that I’m still in the honeymoon phase with! (She’s the reason I didn’t go to work on my birthday. She put her foot down on that one… as she should have).
Whenever I get the chance, I try to turn my brain off and relax with a good movie, or a good book. I’m currently in a deep dive with all things “Hamilton.” Just saw the show on Disney+. Have not listened to anything else in my car but the soundtrack. Now I’m only reading books about that era of our history, and just started the book that inspired the musical, Ron Chernow’s “Hamilton” (and it’s awesome). When I do get to retire, at home, after my son says “good night” and retires to his “teen cave”, the last thing I see before I drift off to sleep, is my wife’s pretty face and beautiful smile.
I realize that despite all of this chaos, I’m a really lucky guy.