Dan Ramaekers and Dr. Diana Matsumoto

Dan Ramaekers and Dr. Diana Matsumoto dress protectively so they can treat patients in the parking lot at TLC Pediatrics in Ahwatukee.

TLC Pediatrics founder Dr. Diane Matsumoto says just because there’s a vaccine, the battle against COVID-19 is far from over – including in Ahwatukee.

“People don’t want to hear it, but the battle is raging on,” said Matsumoto, who dons her “bunny suit” to treat sick patients in what had been her staff parking lot at 16611 S. 40th St.

 Though she has worked with children the last 25 years, the “bunny suit” isn’t the stuff of Peter Cottontail. It is full-body personal protective equipment.

It’s standard gear for Matsumoto’s staff – Dr. Noelle Miller, Dr. Khristina Ramirez, Dr. Nima Sakhadia and physician assistant Dan Ramaekers.

Patients who aren’t sick are met inside. Even before the pandemic struck, TLC Pediatrics maintained separate lobbies for sick and well-child visits.

TLC’s curbside services, including COVID testing of young children and parents began in late March, when Matsumoto, who founded the clinic in 2004, returned from a mission trip to Kenya.

She refers to that time as “the week the world changed.”

“I was in Kenya March 5 when this all broke out,” she recalled. “We had no internet for 10 days and when we got it back, everything had changed and our flights were canceled.  We got out of Kenya 15 hours before the country closed and we came back to a different world – and that was the start of our parking lot medicine.”

The ensuing 10 months have brought great changes to the TLC Pediatrics, costing some beloved staff members who were considered high-risk, including four who had been with the practice for eight years or more.

Though seeing sick patients with COVID or COVID-like symptoms curbside visits day-in and day-out has been grueling, the staff has risen to the task.

“I’ve been so impressed at how TLCs staff has faced the challenge with few complaints,” Matsumoto said.  “We’ve worked outside in 115 degrees and 40-degree temperatures, and last week we were out there in the rain and hail.” 

The staff sees sick patients as they sit in their cars. 

“We’ve swabbed noses, comforted scared families, diagnosed COVID, pneumonia and other illnesses, and socially-distance hugged grieving families, all from behind a white bunny suit and mask,” she said. “We’ve been extremely successful keeping people out of the E.R. and urgent care.”

Even so, she said, there have already been COVID deaths within the Ahwatukee community. 

“We’ve grieved with children in our practice who have lost their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and teachers to this disease,” she said, adding she is personally aware of four deaths within the community.   

“I know people are dealing with COVID fatigue, and I know it’s hard to hear, but we need to stay vigilant,” she said.

“The battle is so real, and yet we still get questions daily about if it is made up,” Matsumoto continued. “My answer is always, ‘What’s in it for us to make this up? It’s certainly an odd way to develop a practice.’”

“It’s been an awful 10 months, and just the other day I was thinking, it’s getting warmer and we’re going to be out here again in 115 degrees.”

Though she and her staff have received vaccinations, they will continue to wear their protective gear – and treat people even in the parking lot if they have to.

“We offer curbside COVID testing for patients who are ill or have been exposed,” Matsumoto said. “While most centers don’t always provide COVID testing on young children, TLC providers perform testing, check vital signs and lungs, provide recommendations and follow-up care instructions.” 

Her website. TLCPedsAz.com, also notes, “TLC also offers additional curbside testing when needed at the time of a patient’s visit such as testing for strep or flu. This is why the appointment is a billable visit although the actual testing for COVID is provided at no cost at this time.”

Matsumoto stressed, “Screening is key in combating the virus and the sooner we can get preliminary information, the better families can plan.” 

And she said people should not expect relief from the pandemic any time soon.

“What we know for certain is that the average citizen who does not fall under certain categories…will likely start receiving vaccinations in late spring or early summer, though studies are still ongoing for children so it is unclear when they will receive the vaccine. That leaves us with a number of months to remain vigilant.” 

“Although we’re all tired of the social limitations resulting from the pandemic, TLC Pediatrics encourages each patient and family member to continue observing safety measures including mask-wearing in public, social distancing, frequent hand washing, and staying home when sick.”

Matsumoto had high praise for Ahwatukee families who have adapted to the challenging times, stating, “The epidemic has allowed us to really appreciate the superpowers of our parents and community. 

“We hear wonderful stories of families’ distance learning, forming quarantine groups, starting family exercise programs, and virtually checking on each other.” 

She recalled how Ahwatukee rallied to her aid during a shortage of surgical masks. 

“Ahwatukee community members stepped up and we got hundreds of beautifully-made masks,” she said. “It was quite moving.”

While the availability of masks and shields have improved, doctors now are coping with pandemic-related depression and anxiety, especially among the young. TLC serves patients newborn through age 21.

“We’re actively evaluating kids for depression and anxiety. We refer kids to psychology if needed and treat with medication if indicated,” she said.  “Parents are scared and you can’t hug them, you can hardly hear them. It’s just been so hard.”

Married to opthamologist Dr. Bert Matsumoto, the couple has six children.

Prior to the pandemic, Matsumoto was active in medical missions, volunteering and leading medical trips to Africa with organizations such as Feed My Starving Children, Global Health Outreach and Project Cure.

But right now, the fight is at home.

“People say you’re not in the ICU, what do you mean you’re on the front line?” she said. “But we are. It’s probably the hardest thing we’ve been through by far.” 

TLC Pediatrics, in both Ahwatukee and Chandler, is open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Information: TLCPedsAZ.com

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