PORT ANGELES — In the beginning, Dr. Ned Hammar was no fan of the sweeping mandates brought on by the novel coronavirus.
The father of two boys thought: “Let me just get this virus and go on with life.”
Hammar is only 46; he grew up in the tiny town of Halfway, Ore. After earning his medical degree at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, he finished his residency at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, and moved to Port Angeles to become a family doctor.
Everything in his life has changed now. Hammar is seeing suffering beyond what he has witnessed in all of his time in medicine.
Last week, one of the men Hammar was caring for died of COVID-19. He had been previously hospitalized at Olympic Medical Center, and was released when he’d improved. Then he returned with complications.
“His whole COVID course was a couple weeks,” Hammar said.
The man is among 46 people known to have died of COVID on the North Olympic Peninsula. The number has grown by 13 local residents since the first of September.
Hammar sat with his patient’s family afterward, walking them through what had happened. He also listened to their stories.
“This was a person who had a life in the community,” Hammar said. Yes, he could come across as curmudgeon, but would give his shirt to someone who needed it.
This was a man who helped people out — and his interactions with a person in need, Hammar said, may have been what led to him catching COVID.
This weekend, Hammar was snuggling with his two boys, age 7 and 9, after a few weeks of not seeing much of them.
It struck him: “That could have been me in one of the hospital beds. The only reason it wasn’t is because I got my vaccine.”
Hammar added that there are COVID patients in his care who are unvaccinated and younger than he is; if they’re fathers, and if they die, their kids will be robbed of parents.
In his life and work, Hammar is guided by two principles. First: Each patient deserves and will receive the best care he can give. While Hammar wants everyone who can get vaccinated against COVID to do so, when a patient comes in unvaccinated, he devotes himself to that patient regardless.
Virus affects all
The second principle is that this virus affects every person. When it comes to degrees of separation, there are few to none.
“I can’t just live in my little bubble,” for example, if the businesses downtown are suffering and closing.
Immunization “is the best, fastest, safest way to recover our economy,” Hammar added. The vaccines were approved following exhaustive trials and lengthy study; more than 5 billion doses have been administered worldwide.
Among the people Hammar is seeing admitted to the hospital, some are vaccinated. There’s a stark difference between these patients, he said, and the people who come in unvaccinated.
“What we are seeing are young, healthy people, getting sicker and needing more oxygen,” Hammar said. They were not in the older, high-risk group, and they decided against the vaccine.
A patient hospitalized with severe COVID-19 may need oxygen delivered through a range of devices. The worst case involves a ventilator. The patient is sedated and a tube inserted into the windpipe to pump oxygen into the lungs.
“If you’ve got COVID and you’re intubated, your odds are not good,” Hammar said.
He works with a nursing and respiratory therapy team who inspire him daily — hourly. All too often, Hammar also sees patients who do not have COVID being affected by it.
His wife, Dr. Lissa Lubinski, also a family physician, was caring for a patient who suffered critical bleeding from his stomach. He needed to be transferred to a hospital in Seattle. Due to the influx of COVID patients there and around the region, the man instead stayed in OMC’s emergency room for 18 hours.
Hammar has had conversations with people who hesitate to be immunized against COVID. He seeks to listen, and to address their concerns about safety, explaining how the vaccines were vetted and continually monitored.
When a person is vaccinated, their chances of being hospitalized with a serious COVID complication drop to about one in 5,000, Hammar said. Those chances are at about one in 100 for an unvaccinated person with COVID.
The disease has shown itself to be dangerous to children, elders and people in between, he said.
“We’ve all seen that picture of the coronavirus. Those spikes are spike proteins; they have targets in the lungs, the kidneys, the brain, the lining of the blood vessels,” and are doing permanent damage in many people.
The intensely contagious delta variant, likewise reaches out to affect the people in our lives, Hammar said.
Say you skip the shots. Maybe you catch COVID with only mild symptoms. Even so, if you’re unvaccinated, you can give the disease to your child. You can give it to a friend who is immunocompromised and cannot fend off a potentially lethal bout with it.
The reality right now is “scary,” Hammar acknowledged. COVID and its delta variant have overtaken people, families and the whole community with terrible speed.
“I wish people could see how hard our staff is working,” he said.
Through it all, Hammar has hope — for more dialogue between people, more caring for one’s neighbors.
“My faith as a physician,” he said, “is in humans, in all our imperfections.”
Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected]