On Tuesday night, one of my co-residents did 17 emergency intubations. Upon running to respond to yet another intubation page, she was horrified to see that the patient was one of our supervising physicians. Today, one of our surgeons was intubated. Off duty in my Upper West Side apartment, I hear an ambulance go by every 10 minutes. It’s hard to sleep. My colleagues wonder out loud: Is this chest pain from the virus, or just intense anxiety?
Wednesday, April 8
I spent the past few days and nights working in the OR-ICU. It is truly a scene from a science-fiction movie. When I put on my PPE (N95 mask, goggles, face shield, hair cover, gown, and two pairs of gloves) to enter the operating room, it almost feels as though the goggles are a virtual-reality headset. Upon entering the OR, I am confronted with the sight of four patients, all deeply sedated, each intubated and connected to an anesthesia-machine ventilator and many, many pumps for IV medications. Some—the lucky ones—are also connected to machines that perform dialysis. It’s loud. Huge fans filter viral particles from the air, and there are hundreds of overlapping beeps from the monitors, ventilators, and pumps. And it’s a mess. For days I wondered about some patient belongings in the corner: a pile topped with a pair of dark jeans and a cotton polo shirt. I inspected it more closely and saw the name tag of a patient who had passed away several days earlier. Yesterday I noticed a loose paper on the ground and picked it up. “Body Bag Instructions,” it read.
My team is responsible for the care of 12 ventilated patients. Of the 12, six are age 50 or under. Most are showing no signs of progress. One is a relatively young person who has been intubated for more than 10 days. We became optimistic that this patient, who had been breathing well with little support from the ventilator, could be disconnected from the machine. On Monday morning we removed the breathing tube, but the patient quickly deteriorated, and we had to re-intubate.
End-of-life care has always been the work of intensivists. It’s hard but profoundly rewarding to feel that you can help families through some of the most vulnerable moments in their lives. It’s part of the reason I chose to become a critical-care doctor. Pre-COVID, we were used to seeing patients pass away with at least one family member at their side. ICU doctors are desensitized to death, but even for us, the fact that people are dying alone is devastating to watch.
We have a team of doctors—who because of their age or other conditions are at high risk for the coronavirus—working from home as “family liaisons.” They call the family members of every ICU patient to give updates and help make decisions about care. When I arrived at work in the morning, our family liaison informed me that a family wanted to withdraw care from their father. He asked me to call into a Zoom meeting so they could see their dad and make a final decision.