Easing COVID-19 suffering from two frontlines

When physician Sachin Garg wasn't working long hours to help develop a test to battle COVID-19 infection, he witnessed the devastation of the disease first-hand as he cared for critically ill patients.

As the numbers of COVID-19 infections and deaths soared across the United States in the spring of 2020, with New York City at the epicenter of the pandemic, Roche Diagnostics clinical science leader Sachin Garg spent 14-hour days helping to develop a new test to combat this disease.  

His weekends were spent volunteering at a busy Brooklyn hospital, easing the suffering of the sick and dying.

“The hospital was packed to the brim and everyone had COVID-19,” recalls Sachin, an internal medicine physician who volunteered as a hospitalist when he wasn’t working long hours on the new Roche test. 

The days and nights spent trying to save lives are forever in Sachin’s memory.

“Patients were not allowed to have their families come to the hospital. I knew some of those people I was admitting weren’t going to make it out of the hospital. Many of them died, and they died alone, without their families.

“I would love to be able to say that because of my great doctoring I was able to save some of their lives, but the reality is I wasn’t able to significantly improve their clinical course, with mostly supportive care and no lifesaving treatments available. I felt like I had zero control over who lived and who died in that hospital. I witnessed first-hand the devastation and loneliness and the complete pandemonium striking New York City in that moment.”

He focused on providing as much information as he could to anxious families over the phone, and to comforting patients though kindness, even as his own worries grew. “Practicing medicine was like living in a constant state of fear and panic that you might contract the infection.”

Sachin garg PPE
Finding the silver lining

For Sachin, who was working simultaneously on two COVID-19 frontlines, one important silver lining came in his day job, where he and the Roche Diagnostics team developed a molecular test that could make a difference for patients through fast diagnosis.

The point-of-care test, which received U.S. Food and Drug Administration Emergency Use Authorization in September 2020, can determine in 20 minutes whether a patient has COVID-19, influenza or both in urgent and emergency care settings. With similar symptoms between COVID-19 and influenza, it’s important for providers to be able to quickly differentiate between these two infections.

“I felt like this was where I could help save lives,” Sachin says of the test development. “This is why I went into medicine - to be connected to my work at the individual patient level and also to directly see the impact I am able to have on a larger scale. I feel incredibly grateful that I am able to contribute and help the world to overcome this crisis.”

At the hospital, he hosted lunchtime conversations about diagnostic tests with clinicians and resident physicians in training. “We would talk about how molecular tests are built and what the results mean.”

At Roche, he was conversely able to bring his patient care experiences back to the team, driving home the importance of the COVID-19 test in development.

Sachin garg karina

It’s important for us to stay connected to clinical patient care -
that’s our true North Star, and we can never forget this.

~ Sachin Garg

Connecting to patients

“The Roche team would talk about how this test would be used, what the clinical applications are and what we needed to be cognizant of in building it,” he says. “It’s important for us to stay connected to clinical patient care - that’s our true North Star, and we can never forget this.”

As a boy, Sachin dreamed of easing the suffering of patients as a physician. His parents, who immigrated from India, come from a family of doctors.

At Northwestern University, not far from his Chicago, Illinois home in the United States, Sachin became fascinated by economic modeling and its global impact. He worked as a consultant to Fortune 500 companies, “but what was missing was a personal connection with the work we were doing. I was helping airlines out of bankruptcy and advising on healthcare models, but I wasn’t feeling very connected to the work.”

He went back to school and received his medical degree from Emory University. As a physician at the University of California, San Francisco, Sachin was drawn to research. He joined the Roche Diagnostics team in Pleasanton, California, in 2016, with the goal of impacting a greater number of patients.

Sachin Karina beach portrait

When his wife, Karina D’Souza, started her hematology and oncology fellowship at a Brooklyn hospital, Sachin commuted between New York and the Roche Diagnostics office in California. In March 2020, he answered the all-hands-on-deck call brought on by the pandemic, signing up as a volunteer hospitalist. “It was important for who I am as a person, and how I wanted to show up at that particular moment in time,” he says.

The couple has since moved back to Oakland, California, where Sachin volunteers as an internal medicine physician at a county hospital that cares for uninsured and underinsured patients, and Karina is a practicing oncologist. Sachin now works for Roche Information Solutions, building digital diagnostic solutions.

“I am grateful that the experience in New York connected me with my identity,” he says. “I  reconnected with how lucky and privileged I am to be a doctor. I am here to help people, and it’s  going to be part of my life forever.”