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When COVID-19 hit the nation of Georgia last year, its residents turned to an unlikely source: two Georgian doctors who had immigrated to the U.S. and had been battling the pandemic for months. Dr. Nana Gegetchkori in New York City and Dr. Zurab Guruli in Jackson, Mississippi, became viral sensations in their home country, advising doctors and patients, largely on social media. Hari Sreenivasan reports.
In the small country of Georgia, with about 3.7 million people, more than 8 percent of the population has tested positive for the coronavirus.
At its peak in December, with a rate of about 4,400 new cases a day, the medical system was overwhelmed and Georgians had few resources to turn to.
But here in the United States, nearly 6,000 miles away, two Georgian doctors found a way to tackle their home country's woes with an unlikely grassroots effort– advising doctors and thousands of patients, using the power of social media.
Nana Gegetchkori is a cardiologist at Maimonides hospital in New York City. Zurab Guruli is the Chief of Anesthesiology at Montgomery VA Medical Center, in Jackson, Mississippi.
Both are immigrants from the country of Georgia, a small nation in the Caucasus mountains between Russia and Turkey. And when each realized the toll COVID would take on their nation's health system, they teamed up to help from half a world away.
Dr. Nana Gegetchkori:
I was terrified what if my country will have as many numbers as we have right now and how they will be dealing with this.
Dr. Zurab Guruli:
First thing that came to my mind wasn't my little Georgia which does not have a well developed healthcare system and it is a poor country.
They tapped into platforms like Facebook to share their in-the-trenches knowledge, and in essence become the personal doctors for thousands of patients in their old country. Even as they treated Americans sickened by the disease at their respective hospitals.
Maimonides already had an enormous number of cases. That experience became so valuable that I thought this is time to share because before they get new cases and before they get really sick patients they have to know.
Pandemic is like a war and what is the most important thing in the wars? Intelligence. Especially in such a condition when you do not know your enemy.
An ocean and a continent away from the United States, Georgia, a country of only 3.7 million, was stricken in December with the highest infection rate per 100,000 people in the world… with the daily cases up to 5,000.
How did this happen?
Recently in Georgia's Black Sea port city Batumi, kids have been training for the World Karate Championships outdoors due to COVID safety restrictions. Normal life is slowly coming back to the city after a big wave of COVID pummeled the city last summer.
We forgot about everything in summer. The state and more importantly, the part of the population that came here to relax, relaxed here freely.
By the end of the season, local tourists were offered free virus testing. As the number of positive cases increased, people panicked.
That period lasted approximately 2 weeks in Adjara and it was a period of complete collapse.
The hospitals were converted into emergency COVID treatment centers and local doctor Sophio Beridze became one of the COVID care group leaders.
Before arriving at hospitals COVID patients were not managed, and not to mention that people who entered hospitals had a lack of access to oxygen and enough medical personnel.
As the virus spread throughout the country. Emergency hot lines were overwhelmed, as was the nation's entire medical system. More than a thousand people were being infected every day. Citizens were rattled by rumors, misinformation and limited access to credible medical advice.
In response, Dr. Gegetchkori and Dr. Guruli posted a collaborative guideline. It was the first popularly accessible medical guideline on COVID-19 available in Georgian. It went viral and made national headlines receiving tens of thousands of shares on Facebook and more than a million views.
I can tell you that there were hundreds of letters. I started sorting out information how to prevent what to do and the next questions were how to treat and of course they needed psychological support too.
It was night when my test results came in and exactly that was when I started to really worry.
When Eka Lominashvili discovered she had contracted the virus, she couldn't find credible treatment information in Georgia.
That was a horrible period in sense that in Georgia, in Tbilisi there was no family doctor, no insurance company and practically no one from whom one could get help, even something as simple as advice.
A friend advised her to contact Dr. Guruli and Dr. Gegetchkori, who provided their compassionate bedside manner from eight time zones away.
In that critical period those two people were everything to me, a tremendous source of hope.
Lominashvili recovered quickly at home. A doctor living in a small town called Senaki wasn't so lucky: Irina Pshenichnaia-Sichnava was hospitalized, and spent a month fighting for her life.
Dr. Irina Pshenichnaia-Sichnava:
When they took me to resuscitation room and started to insert the central venous catheter, a thought passed through my mind – my children: Who will they be left with; how will they be and that's when I told my resuscitator: "Do whatever is needed with me, I will obey – I remember every word exactly – but I have to leave on my own feet from here, please, know this."
As her condition worsened, a friend sought out Dr. Guruli in Mississippi, for help.
I called him crying that my best friend was like this… dying. Then Zura contacted Nana.
I didn't know what was happening around me, I didn't know many things.
The two US-based doctors consulted with the clinic on a near-daily basis, after one month she returned home to her family.
It seems it wasn't time for me to go yet.
And we were not alone in this. It was also impressive that a lot of other doctors started doing the same things.
Dr. Guruli and Dr. Gegetchkori joined a Georgia-based digital platform with other doctors that through a chatbot connects patients with qualified care-givers, and helps combat dangerous self-treatment of the disease.
We found out that the people were not able to get the proper and trustworthy information as well they had no access to hospitals.
Then I went for it and just started taking blood thinners, it wasn't only blood thinners, there were a lot of other things as well.
Sandro Kandelaki was a victim of misinformation himself and is now part of the digital assistant Covider that has been visited by more than 87,000 unique visitors so far.
Nana and Zurab were not sleeping. I can tell you that once they were ending their jobs they were calling us so without their help I could say that we would have much more harder outcomes.
Dr. Bidzina Kulumbegovi:
We all had our roles, of course. All those innovations that were coming from the experience, shared by them. On our side, we did all we could in terms of ambulatory protection and help, a serious team of doctors were involved in the stationary management.
Locked down in their jobs in New York and Mississippi, Dr.'s Guruli and Gegetchkori have never actually met, but their long range caregiving in their old homeland has built a lasting friendship.
It was a really important experience of using new technologies to deliver care transatlantically.
If we share our experience, and if together come to tackle any disease I think there will be no problem which the human race cannot solve and and it's just important that we have to come together we have to help each other and not to be selfish because this planet is our home.
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Hari Sreenivasan joined the PBS NewsHour in 2009. He is the Anchor of PBS NewsHour Weekend and a Senior Correspondent for the nightly program.
Sam Weber has covered everything from living on minimum wage to consumer finance as a shooter/producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Prior joining NH Weekend, he previously worked for Need to Know on PBS and in public radio. He’s an avid cyclist and Chicago Bulls fan.
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