In the third story of our Healing Warriors series, we find an ICU physician experiencing the devastating loss and pain that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic. This account is raw and real. It reminds us that, even as we begin to see glimmers of hope in some areas, this pandemic will painfully live on in the minds and hearts of clinicians and families around the world.
A 53-year-old man presents with shortness of breath for four days. His wife was just discharged from our hospital two days ago with coronavirus pneumonia. He was sent from urgent care and refused EMS transport.
I enter the patient room and an EKG is being performed with “bradycardia.” I evaluate him and he has no pulse. I immediately ask all the nurses and techs to move to the back of the room, and I started CPR.
I turn his head away from me, put a mask on him, and immediately start intubating him. While I am doing CPR, one of my fellow physicians rushes in to help and—without gloves on or any other PPE—tries to assist by doing CPR. He gets about 18 inches from the patient while I am intubating the patient and I yell “No, no, no! Get out of here!”
He looks at me puzzled, but doesn’t touch the patient. Again, I scream, “Get out of here NOW!” He realizes the situation and leaves to let me continue. No one is at the head of the bed except me—intubating and performing CPR. Once I intubate and get the filter in place, I ask the nurses and techs to come back up and help out.
Unfortunately, despite all our best efforts, the patient died. No one but me was exposed to his disease, which gives me some solace. I have no children, and I will not let my fellow physicians or APPs see sick COVID patients while I am working. This is a moral issue and I am moral in this decision. I can’t be there 24 hours a day but when I am there, my colleagues don’t see these patients—I do.
I go to tell the patient’s wife about her husband’s death. The first thing I had to say to her was, “Ma’am, please put your mask over your face,” since she had it around her neck and I knew she had coronavirus (as noted, she was just discharged from our hospital less than two days ago). This is not how I operate. I am not cold when telling families about their loved one’s death. I could not touch her, hug her, or even put a hand on her shoulder to console her.
The worst part of this experience for me is seeing her an hour later in the hall. I try to explain to her how sorry I am for her husband’s death, how I don’t usually act so distant but that she had coronavirus—so I had to be that way. She states, “Thank you for all you’re doing… thank you for being a hero.”
I have never felt less like a hero in my career than that day. Hero???? More like zero. I couldn’t save your husband’s life and then I had the indignity of not even being able to touch you with compassion when telling you he had died. The first words I said to you were to put on your mask to protect others. “Hero” – no. That’s the day I will remember as the day I was the most “zero” in my 20-year career.
This is the awfulness of this disease. I pray it doesn’t return in the winter.