UC San Diego nurse compiles a COVID-19 playlist from patients

Joe Bautista, a nurse with UCSD Health, checks on coronavirus patients daily by telephone.

Telemedicine nurse Joe Bautista collects favorite songs from coronavirus patients to help build rapport.


Joe Bautista has spent the past several months nursing coronavirus patients he can’t touch or see in person.

All of them are in isolation, some for 10 or more days. It’s a bit like serving a solitary confinement sentence in their own homes.

They have been diagnosed with COVID-19. They aren’t sick enough to be hospitalized but, because the virus is contagious, they can’t mingle with family members or friends.

It’s lonely and, for many, the solitude is compounded by additional fears and anxieties — perhaps the inability to provide for other family members, underlying health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer or high blood pressure, pregnancy concerns — the list goes on.

“It was a very scary time, especially in March and April, for patients who did not know what was happening,” Bautista said, pointing to uncertain media coverage at the time.

To address such fears and check in on coronavirus patients who are urged not to leave home to visit the hospital or their physician unless absolutely necessary, infectious-disease doctors at UC San Diego Health created a special telemedicine clinic tailored to their needs.

The clinic offers telephone consultations with nurses and video visits with doctors for anyone with a COVID-19 diagnosis in the previous seven days.

“As far as I know, we are the only infectious-disease clinic in our area that’s doing anything like this,” said Dr. Michele Ritter, founder and director of UCSD’s COVID-19 Telemedicine Clinic.

Dr. Michele Ritter of UCSD Health is relying on telemedicine and video visits to check on isolated COVID-19 patients.
Dr. Michele Ritter of UCSD Health is relying on telemedicine and video visits to check on isolated COVID-19 patients to answer questions and allay their fears.

She got the idea after a professor friend at UCSD asked her to check in on a former graduate student who had moved to Michigan and was worried that she had contracted COVID-19. After Ritter called, the young woman sent her a thank-you text explaining what a big impact her call had made.

“That’s what made me think about it,” Ritter said. “There are people floating out there with the illness who are told not to go to the doctor’s office and not to go to the hospital. How can we help these people and let them know they are not alone ... that someone is taking ownership of their care?”

Before long, six infectious-disease doctors had coordinated the telemedicine clinic setup, aided by at least two nurses, a physician’s assistant and an administrative assistant. A nurse calls each patient daily and doctors conduct video visits through the hospital’s MyChart app three or four times a week.

Since April, Bautista has been assigned to call remote coronavirus patients, check their medical progress, calm worries and reassure them they aren’t forgotten.

When he called the first time, he decided he needed a way to break the ice. He quickly found that he got patients’ attention when he told them he was requesting a special nurse’s fee for his services.

“They’d say, ‘What?’” Bautista recalled. The fee, he told them, was to tell him their current favorite song.

English is a second language for many of the patients, but one language all of us speak is music, he reasoned.

He since has collected a list of more than 300 different titles. They include “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child, “House Arrest” by Sofi Tukker, “Lean On Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers, “The Loner” by Neil Young, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones and “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees.

Other favorites: “Stronger” by Kanye West, “Don’t Let Me Down” by the Beatles, “Everything’s Gonna be Alright” by Al Green, “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd, “Helpless” from the musical “Hamilton,” “Home” by Michael Bublé and “Don’t Worry Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin.

An elderly patient picked Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” Another senior citizen said her favorite COVID-19 song was “Tennessee Whiskey.” Puzzled, Bautista asked her why. “Because that’s what I need right now,” she said.

“Once you ask their favorite song, you develop a rapport and are able to find out more about them,” Bautista said. “Sometimes they tell you symptoms they hadn’t even told the doctor.”

Bautista checks in with each of his patients every day during the isolation period.

“What Dr. Ritter has been doing is revolutionary,” he said.

So far there have been more than 1,700 virtual visits involving about 680 patients, Ritter said. “We’re all doing it on top of our usual duties. It involves crazy hours and working together to get patients seen.”

“It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve been part of since becoming an infectious-disease doctor,” she added. “It would be great for other hospitals to follow our lead.”

When asked for his own favorite COVID song, Bautista didn’t hesitate. It’s “Going Gets Tuff” by an Orange County band, the Growlers. “Still always remembering, when the going gets tuff that the labor of our love will reward us soon enough,” he quoted.

“That song resonates with me,” Bautista said. ◆