Opinion | A Young Doctor Fights to Survive the Coronavirus

A few weeks ago, I visited two hospitals in the Bronx to report from the front lines of this pandemic. While there, I kept hearing about a young doctor with Covid who was fighting for his life in the ICU. Things just were not getting better. The amount of anger and frustration and sadness that I felt. Just the idea of losing my son was unbearable. But ultimately, he survived. I’m Andres Maldonado, and I’m an ER doctor here in the Bronx. I’m a healthy 27-year-old guy. No medical problems. But I got Covid-19. I was so sick that, at one point, I thought I was going to die. This is my story, which should be a warning to everyone. I was working mostly in the two weeks where it was really starting to ramp up. It was quite dire. Stretchers lined two or three deep. You were just being called from one patient to the next. “I need a vent.” “I need a vent.” How many vents do we have? All these questions that we had never considered, ever. They’re starting to ration out these N95s. We’re in a spot where we’re wearing stuff a day at a time, multiple days at a time. A lot of these patients that I’ve met are scared. I want to be able to help people when they need you the most. There was a patient, and she coughed right on my face. And that’s when I got scared. What if she does have coronavirus? Day one, March 23rd. It was the middle of the night. I started to feel just really horrible chills. But I thought to myself, oh, you know, I’ve been sick like this before. You know, I’ve had a virus. I’m young. I’m 27. I’m invincible. Like, you know, nothing can touch me. Day two. When I would take a really deep breath, it would hurt. Day three. Fevers that would come up to 102. But I would take Tylenol, and I’d be OK. Day four. I spoke to my mom. Through the whole week, it was like, what’s going to happen, what’s going to happen? Day five was actually when I went to go get tested. Day six, and my coronavirus is positive. Our worst fears were coming true. Day seven. I was pacing my room, and I was just thinking, come on, Tylenol, just start working already. It worked a little bit, but then the fever would come back two hours later. Day eight. Couldn’t finish my sentences without taking a breath. That’s when it clicked, I can’t continue to stay home. Day nine, March 31st. Andres calls me, and he tells me, the first thing is, ‘Mommy, don’t panic.’ And when he says don’t panic, what do you think I’m going to do? And he goes, ‘I’m going to the ER right now. I don’t feel good.’ And I said, ‘what’s wrong?’ And he said, ‘I’m short of breath.’ I met Mike Jones, our leader in residency, inside of a tent in front of the ER. He came to the hospital where I was that day. Every patient with COVID reaches a critical time period where you can see that they’re heading in the wrong direction. They’re kind of going over that tilt of that cliff, heading in the direction where they may need intubation. At least 70% to 80% of patients who were placed on ventilators were dying. So we tried very hard to avoid intubation. Everyone who was there knew me. All the nurses, Mike Jones. I know Dr. Romo personally. They were alarmed. Just looking at him through the window, it just felt like I got kicked in the stomach. I ended up writing ‘we love you’ and taping it on the window so he could see it. I went in the room and I cried. I cried. I wanted to remain strong and support Andres, and not let him see that I was worried. I was terrified. When I walk into the room, I realize that he was breathing at a faster rate than he was before. That was a significant moment for me because I have been in that position where you see a patient, they were critically ill. I knew that sense of urgency meant that they were considering more invasive options. We decided that he was getting sicker, and that maybe he was going to need to be intubated. We made the decision to admit him to the intensive care unit. I said, ‘call the ICU right now. Let them know he’s coming.’ I heard Dr. Romo say he needs to be placed on a high-flow nasal cannula. A device that provides a large volume and high velocity of oxygen to a patient. So we brought him right up and started the high-flow nasal cannula. The only thought in my head was, just please get better on this. Please, please work. I woke up in the middle of the night. I heard a lot of commotion outside, and people turned on all the lights. I looked at the monitor to check my vital signs, and overhead, you hear— “Rapid response. Rapid response.” They’re calling for extra doctors to report two rooms down from me. She was a 25-year-old. She just kept saying, ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.’ Then she had this cardiac arrest. Her heart stopped. And I was terrified. You know, I was thinking, that’s two doors down, and that could have been me. Sometimes, you think about what would happen if you would die. And then you think about your parents if you died, the permanent distress they’d probably feel. And I haven’t really seen my husband cry, and he did break down. I have never seen him like that. He went on his knees, and he was asking God to please save Andres and take him instead of Andres. My dad doesn’t get like that. You know, he’s serious. He’s like a military guy. Just let me get over this. Just the idea of losing my son was unbearable. Despite thinking I can die, I still felt determined to somehow get better. And the way that translated to me and my medical mind was focus on your breathing. One breath at a time. Think about the air going in, out. Try and take deep breaths. Makes you cough? OK., take a break. Try again. And then at some magical point, we turned the corner. What’s up, Andres? Welcome back. Hey, thank you. Wow. [CHEERING AND APPLAUSE] (CHANTING) Andres! Andres! Andres! Andres! Andres! Andres! Andres! Andres! Andres! Andres! I’m completely overwhelmed right now. It’s a victory. Every victory helps us try to help the next patient get through this. It was an amazing feeling of triumph. It was like, yes, we did this, we beat it. They saved my life. 24 of our 84 emergency medicine residents have been out sick during this crisis. The number of health care workers that have died is horrible. All health care worker infections are preventable. I really, truly believe that. I believe the government failed everybody. Oh, only 400 died today, not 700 like last week. It’s like, for goodness sake, we’re talking about human lives. It’s a virus. It will infect you. It doesn’t care who you are, where you’re from, what you do, who you support politically. It just doesn’t care. Please appreciate your life more before you choose to ignore the stay at home orders or the quarantine, because anyone can get sick.

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