Five Weeks Later: When the Critical Care Physician Becomes the Critical Care Patient


  • Michael Leonard, MD Safe & Reliable Healthcare


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.

Author Biography

Michael Leonard, MD, Safe & Reliable Healthcare

Dr. Michael Leonard, a founder of Safe & Reliable Healthcare, is a cardiac anesthesiologist by training who spent 20 years with Kaiser Permanente, both as a practicing clinician and leader, and 10 years as the National Physician Leader for Patient Safety. In 1999, he helped Kaiser forge a collaborative relationship with Dr. Robert Helmreich’s Human Factors Research Project to work on the application of human factors teamwork and communication training into healthcare. Dr. Leonard has been an adjunct professor of Medicine at Duke University School of Medicine.
Dr. Leonard has a deep interest in culture, leadership, teamwork, and high reliability in diverse areas of clinical practice. He has taught extensively in high-risk areas such as surgery, obstetrics, critical care, and others to enhance safety. He is a faculty member of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) and has helped train over 2000 patient safety officers. Dr. Leonard recently collaborated on The Essential Guide for Patient Safety Officers, published by IHI and The Joint Commission.

Image of physician running to red door with coronavirus on it, then the physician in a hospital bed to the right of the red door.



How to Cite

Leonard, M. (2021). Five Weeks Later: When the Critical Care Physician Becomes the Critical Care Patient. Patient Safety, 3(2), 63–65. Retrieved from
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