‘This is the real deal’ | Tidelands Health physician battles COVID-19

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The Tidelands Health Newsroom

Published on July 20, 2020

‘This is the real deal’ | Tidelands Health physician battles COVID-19

Dr. James Principe speaks slowly, his breathing still labored.

It’s been nearly a week since he was discharged from Tidelands Waccamaw Community Hospital, and yet his normally booming baritone voice remains gravelly.

Dr. James Principe“This is the real deal,” Dr. Principe says of COVID-19, the virus he’s battled for months – first, as a Tidelands Health hospitalist caring for infected patients and, more recently and unexpectedly, as a patient himself. “I’m a pretty healthy guy. I thought I’d hunker down and get through it like any other flu virus.

“But it’s been horrendous. This is not the flu.”

Dr. Principe, a board-certified internal medicine physician and Tidelands Health’s associate chief medical officer, developed a low-grade fever on the evening of July 3 – a telltale sign something was wrong. And he was “worn out,” a fatigue he couldn’t explain.

A COVID-19 test confirmed what he had begun to suspect. The doctor who had cared for dozens of hospitalized COVID-19 patients since March was now fighting for his own health.

For the better part of a week, he rested at his Murrells Inlet home. His wife, Beth, nursed the 61-year-old through a relentless cycle of fever, body aches and sweats. He had no appetite, and “everything hurt.”

On Thursday, July 9, Dr. Principe used a home pulse oximeter to check his oxygen saturation level. A 95 percent reading is considered normal for most healthy individuals. Dr. Principe’s reading? 89 percent. He was mildly hypoxic – a dangerous condition in which the body becomes starved of oxygen.

Dr. James Principe and wife BethBeth rushed her husband to the hospital. And there, the medical professionals he has served alongside for decades came together to fight for Dr. Principe’s life.

Today, he recites their names with gratitude. “Dr. Stover. Dr. Ratz. Dr. Chandler. Every single one of the nurses on 3 East. The service response center. Everyone was so helpful,” Dr. Principe says. “I can’t speak highly enough of what they did for me. It just made me so very proud to be part of Tidelands Health.”

The care team began aggressive treatment. Dr. Principe received a transfusion of convalescent plasma – a blood product rich in COVID-19 antibodies because it was donated by someone who has recovered from the virus. And he was placed on remdesivir and dexamethasone, two medications that have shown promise in treating COVID-19.

“Very quickly, I began to feel a difference,” he says. “I was still completely exhausted, but the fever and body aches stopped.”

Dr. Principe spent three nights at Tidelands Waccamaw before being discharged July 12. Today, he continues to recover at home in Beth’s supportive care.

Each day he feels a little stronger, and he hopes to return to the hospital to once again care for COVID-19 patients within a couple of weeks.

He has no hesitation about rejoining the front lines in a pandemic.

“We’re very careful, and we take all the proper precautions,” he says, adding that he believes he was exposed to the virus not at the hospital but by someone in his family who was ill. “I’ve been caring for COVID-19 patients for months without any problem. I truly believe I’m safer at work than going to the supermarket.”

He pauses for a moment before he speaks again – this time his voice firm.

“I’m a doctor,” he says. “This is what we do.”

And he offers a plea to the community: Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Practice social distancing.

“This is a dreadfully serious illness,” Dr. Principe says. “If people would just heed the warnings, just wear a mask, we could get this thing under control. We have to get it under control.”

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Tidelands Health is the region’s largest health care provider, serving the Carolinas at four hospitals and more than 60 outpatient locations. More than 2,500 employee, physician and volunteer partners are working side by side with our communities to transform the health of our region – promoting wellness, preventing illness, encouraging recovery and restoring health.