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Dr. Hannah Ortiz walks along the bay. (Credit: David Benthal)

What does wellness mean in a pandemic that has strained the local health care system and left some with the conviction that the last thing you want to do is get near a hospital or clinic? How can we own our health and promote wellness for ourselves and our family? And what challenges are particularly acute in our community?

We spoke with two local medical professionals about what changes COVID-19 has caused in the lives and health of their patients and what people can do to help themselves. 

Dr. Hannah Ortiz, is an obstetric oncologist in private practice at Sound Gynecologic Oncology in Riverhead and is affiliated with Hudson Health. During the pandemic, her life was affected in many of the same ways as her patients. Her usual work was temporarily suspended and she found herself practicing medicine in a health care system in crisis, while parenting children suddenly attending school at home. Worst of all, she had to endure the loss of her mother, who had been living in a care facility, to COVID. 

Dr. Joshua Potter practices family medicine on Shelter Island and is affiliated with Stony Brook University. He opened his practice in the middle of the pandemic and quickly became the island’s primary resource for health care information and consultation.

Dr. Hannah Ortiz

Northforker: What changes have you seen in patient wellness since COVID-19?

Dr. Ortiz: People were afraid of the virus and they did not get their screenings. The disease that we are seeing now is so much more complex than it was 15 months ago. Fear, that’s what drove all those delayed cancer diagnoses. Daily fear. Mental health will be the single most long-lasting effect of this pandemic.

Dr. Potter:  The thing that is pretty significant is the increase in the struggle with mental health that almost everyone is having. Not a day goes by without someone talking with me about an increase in anxiety.  My core philosophy comes down to asking, “Are you eating well? Are you moving regularly? Are you sleeping optimally? How is your thinking?” We have to exercise our mind and deal with negative thinking.

What symptoms concern you?

Dr. Ortiz: I have seen patients with recurrent alcoholism, who were doing really well before the pandemic and whose alcoholism came roaring back during the pandemic.

Dr. Potter: They might tell me, “I noticed that I’m eating a lot of sweets after dinner” or “I went from never drinking alcohol to having two or three drinks a night.” On the North Fork and Shelter Island there has long been a culture of regular alcohol use. That has been exacerbated for everyone and it has to do with stress. 

Do the children you see have symptoms of stress and do they present in the same way as adults?

Dr. Potter: Depression in kids can show up as anger, disobedience and behavioral issues. Could it be underlying anxiety or depression? Is this normal development or is this anxiety? The really important role of teachers and school counselors, nurses cannot be overstated here. Reach out to a teacher and ask them about the child’s behavior. I ask parents if the teachers have brought this up. Those resources (at school) are there for a reason and are immensely valuable.

Dr. Josh Potter

Is there something different about maintaining wellness out here? 

Dr. Ortiz: We are surrounded by such bounty, but what are we actually eating? I think on the North Fork people do take advantage of the bounty. We go to the fruit farms and buy the fruit. Or go get a pumpkin and make soup.

Dr. Potter: I can’t describe the number of times I’ve had someone come to me and say, “I’m worried about my neighbor.” So many people have been going to the homes of our homebound seniors to help them get food, go to appointments. They volunteer at the Senior Center, it’s one of the things that makes living [on Shelter Island] so incredible, as well as how beautiful it is.

What steps can people take to feel better?

Dr. Ortiz: Go for a walk, get outside. Get a little exercise. There is ample data looking at exercise and recent recommendations are a little stringent. If you can’t do 30 minutes, five times a week, 20 minutes three times a week is better than zero. Keep your hobbies. I took up sewing. The mental health of the sewing, pinning, those are nice coping things, like knitting or needlework.  We have to eat better — vegetables every day are good for your gut. Say you get COVID-19, you’re going to be much better prepared to handle the virus if you get your vitamins and minerals in your food. You have to acknowledge that it has been a terrible time and you’re just not going to feel right for a while. Forgive yourself if you can’t power back to 100% right away. When things are going badly, sit down in a quiet place and count your breaths. Focus and close your eyes. Sit there in a way that you are not interacting with the world. Slow, deep breaths, count backwards to zero. Empty your mind. This is my mini-vacation. Ten or 15 minutes. It makes a huge difference.

Dr. Potter: This is a pandemic that everyone thought would be done by now. I spend a lot of time talking to people about ways of handling negative emotions, which for some of my patients is faith and prayer and for others is meditation and mindfulness. You figure out which of those areas can help you cope with negative emotions. When appropriate, I give some medicines to help, but there is no one magic bullet to deal with this. Keep doing the things you love and get a support system involved. So many people who suffer feel that they do it in isolation, especially if they believe others depend upon them. They think, “I have to do this on my own; no one knows what I am going through.” And that makes everything so much worse.  Exercise affects physical health as well as emotional health. Whatever you enjoy doing, that you can tolerate, go out and do it regularly. Get out every day and do something for ten or fifteen minutes at least. Eat more fruit and minimize sweets and alcohol. Every day eat a little bit better and move a little bit more