When OB-GYN Vineela Poddatoori, M.D., joined the Sutter East Bay Medical Group 11 years ago this month, it was a long-awaited homecoming. After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, the Benicia native had decamped to Ohio State University for medical school. Although she returned to the Bay Area for residency at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, settling down to practice in the East Bay brought her even closer to her hometown and her undergraduate work.
At UC-Berkeley, Dr. Poddatoori had been a research intern for two years under the
late Shyamala Gopalan Harris, Ph.D., renowned breast cancer researcher and more recently
celebrated as the mother of vice-presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris.
“It was incredible to work for her — scary because of her intensity, but remarkable given her achievements as an immigrant and single mom running her own lab at UC-Berkeley,” Dr. Poddatoori recalls. “I’m proud to have been able to publish under her on some of that research.”
It was actually through teaching classical Indian dance that Dr. Poddatoori first met Dr. Gopalan Harris. One of her current dance students, Meena Harris, is Dr. Gopalan Harris’s granddaughter and Sen. Harris’s niece. Dr. Poddatoori also dances professionally, sometimes with her teenage son—that is, when she can find a little spare time.
“Life as an OB-GYN during the pandemic has been extremely challenging,” Dr. Poddatoori says. “When everything was shutting down, we actually got busier. People might not realize that the emergencies we deal with — miscarriages, ectopic pregnancies, even just delivering babies—are all high-risk aerosolizing procedures equivalent to intubation, putting us in a very high-risk category for contracting COVID-19.”
Earlier this year, Dr. Poddatoori and some of her SEBMG obstetrics colleagues were on call up to 16 times a month, almost double the number of shifts they typically work. This was because just as the pandemic reached the community, an East Bay Stanford OB group closed, transferring dozens of pregnant women to Sutter Health’s care. Then on May 1, Sutter took over the Obstetrical Hospitalist Group to rebuild a more cohesive program for OB patients coming to Alta Bates Summit Medical Center from Planned Parenthood, La Clinica, LifeLong Medical Care and other community partners. Because the pandemic caused delays in staffing the program adequately, the SEBMF obstetricians stepped up to fill the gaps.
“Somehow, through the strength of the team, we’ve
kept our spirits up and done the best we can in overwhelming and stressful conditions,”
Dr. Poddatoori says. “We’ve had more on-call and direct care and an increased
risk of exposure due to the nature of our work. But we decreased in-person visits
as much as possible and remained steadfast to keep our patients and employees safe.”
The pandemic has also taken a personal toll on Dr. Poddatoori and her husband, who is also in healthcare. She worries about bringing illness home to her four children, ages 3 to 13, or her in-laws, who live with the family. She also spends a lot of time with her own parents, who have high-risk conditions.
“I’ve taken on more administrative responsibilities so I can do more at home,” Dr. Poddatoori says. “For instance, I serve as the outpatient lead for the OBs so that I can be home more, and I am recruiting for the medical group and hospitalists.”
As the pandemic persists, she and her colleagues remain committed to ensuring their patients receive the best possible care. As part of this goal, they have participated in research by the Sutter Health Institute for Quality and Health Equity Solutions to study the impact of COVID-19 on pregnant women. Because the ABSMC nursery cares for approximately 5,500 babies per year from diverse backgrounds, it was a natural fit for this important investigation into racial disparities in healthcare.
employees and staff have become more educated about equity in prenatal care recently
by surveying all pregnant patients who deliver at Alta Bates Summit about their care
experience and then working to improve outcomes,” Dr. Poddatoori says. “With
COVID-19, we have observed huge differences in impact for Black and Latinx patients,
and I hope this research can help expand our knowledge to help pregnant women everywhere.”