Five Weeks Later: When the Critical Care Physician Becomes the Critical Care Patient
In March 2020, I was an extremely healthy, fit anesthesiologist in my latter 60s working in quality and high-reliability safety. I made one last trip to the East Coast to socialize with clients before halting travel due to the impending COVID pandemic. I was quite careful to avoid people, socially distance, and stay in empty hotels normally used by international flight crews.
On March 15, I transited Dulles and O’Hare airports on the way home to Colorado. I did not realize the federal government had threatened to close off travel from Europe, and tens of thousands of people had stampeded into a select number of American airports. A quick Google search displayed pictures of literally thousands of people standing shoulder to shoulder for several hours waiting to pass through customs and immigration. Those were the people I sat among on two flights home.
A few days later, I developed fever and a cough, which lasted several days. As I live at altitude in the hills outside of Denver, I used a pulse oximeter to monitor my oxygen saturation (sat), which ranged from 95–97%.
On day 10, I went to the hospital seeking a COVID test but was turned down, because they were not going to admit me. My chest X-ray was normal. Two days later, everything changed. My oxygen sat, which was now 90% at rest, went to 70% as I tried to walk up my driveway, and remained critically low for the next hour as we drove to the University of Colorado Hospital.
When I walked into the emergency department, my greatest fear was I would be told to “go wait over there.” The first person to ask me what was wrong—ironically another anesthesiologist—heard, “I can’t breathe. I really can’t breathe. I’m an anesthesiologist, and I need to be intubated.” Words I thought I would never say and clearly a first for the other physician. As they laid me down, I texted my wife, “I'm coming home.” I woke up five weeks later.