When a Surgeon Became a Covid-19 Patient: ‘I Had Never Faced the Reality of Death’

Early in the pandemic, as hospitals in New York started suspending operations to make means for the flood of Covid-19 circumstances, Dr. Tomoaki Kato continued to carry out surgical procedure. Patients nonetheless wanted liver transplants, and a few had been too sick to attend.

At 56, Dr. Kato was wholesome and exceptionally match. He had run the New York City Marathon seven occasions, and he specialised in operations that had been additionally marathons, lasting 12 or 16 or 20 hours. He was famend for surgical improvements, deft arms and sheer stamina. At NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, the place he was the surgical director of grownup and pediatric liver and intestinal transplantation, his boss has known as him “our Michael Jordan.”

Dr. Kato grew to become in poor health with Covid-19 in March 2020.

“I was in a denial situation,” he mentioned. “I thought I was going to be fine.”

But he quickly grew to become one of the sickest sufferers in his personal hospital, depending on a ventilator and different machines to pump oxygen into his bloodstream and do the work of his failing kidneys. He got here near loss of life “many, many times,” in line with Dr. Marcus R. Pereira, who oversaw Dr. Kato’s care and is the medical director of the middle’s infectious illness program for transplant recipients.

Colleagues feared at first that he wouldn’t survive after which, when the worst had handed, that he would possibly by no means be capable to carry out surgical procedure once more. But after two months in the hospital, Dr. Kato emerged with a dedication to get again to work and a new sense of urgency about the want to show different surgeons the progressive operations he had developed. His personal sickness additionally enabled him to attach with sufferers in ways in which had not been attainable earlier than.

“I really never understood well enough how patients feel,” he mentioned. “Even though I’m convincing patients to take a feeding tube, and encouraging them, saying, ‘Even though it looks like hell now, it will get better and you’ll get through it,’ I really never understood what that hell means.”

He approaches these moments otherwise now: “‘I was there’ are very powerful words for patients.”

Dr. Kato was contaminated earlier than most docs in New York understood the siege that lay forward.

“When we really realized something serious was coming, I think it was already there,” Dr. Kato mentioned. “No one realized how much the virus had spread through the city. The virus was everywhere.”

Dr. Marcus Pereira, who oversaw Dr. Kato’s care. “He looked very sick from the moment he got here, and you realize, this potentially might not end up well,” he mentioned. “It was a very shocking moment.”Credit…Joshua Bright for The New York Times

His sickness started with a unhealthy backache, after which fevers that went up and down for a few days. He stayed house, periodically checking his oxygen stage, and getting readings of 93 and 94 p.c — outcomes now acknowledged as a attainable signal of Covid pneumonia.

But at that early level in the pandemic, he mentioned, “Nobody knows what Covid pneumonia is.” And he didn’t really feel very sick, he instructed colleagues who stored in contact by telephone.

Dr. Pereira mentioned: “I think that fooled us for a few days while he was at home. His oxygen levels were a little low, but he said, ‘I feel fine,’ and his heart rate was not that fast. He was one of the first-wave patients, and we were still learning about Covid.”

‘An eye-opening moment’

One morning in the bathe Dr. Kato immediately couldn’t breathe, and he started coughing violently. He examined his oxygen once more: It was dangerously low, beneath 90 p.c. He had resisted being hospitalized, as docs typically do, however now he had no selection.

“That’s when I decided to check into the hospital,” he mentioned.

Dr. Pereira, a pal in addition to a colleague, was shocked by Dr. Kato’s situation.

“When we actually saw him in the hospital, it was an eye-opening moment,” Dr. Pereira mentioned. “He looked very sick from the moment he got here, and you realize, this potentially might not end up well. It was a very shocking moment. His oxygen levels were very low, he was breathing very rapidly, his heart rate was going very fast, his chest X-ray looked like he had severe Covid.”

By the subsequent day, Dr. Kato was on a ventilator.

“From there,” he mentioned, “I have no consciousness for about four weeks.”

His situation worsened. Bacterial infections set in, adopted by sepsis. His kidneys started to fail, and he wanted dialysis. His lungs couldn’t work properly sufficient to make use of the oxygen from the ventilator, and in the center of one determined evening a surgeon was known as in to attach him to a machine that will take over for his lungs by pumping oxygen straight into his blood and taking carbon dioxide out.

The machine — known as ECMO, for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation — is a final resort.

“When someone is on ECMO, you’re suddenly into the absolute highest-mortality group,” Dr. Pereira mentioned. “Your chances of coming back from that are in the single digits. When he went on that, it was sort of a moment. We all felt we were about to lose him.”

Dr. Kato was a star, a towering determine in his subject, and to see him struck down shook the hospital workers.

“It was horrific,” mentioned Dr. Jean C. Emond, the chief of transplant providers, and Dr. Kato’s boss. “It was a terrible thing touching a friend and colleague. There was this fear like, Was the world going to end — this global sense of doom. A fear of surfaces. Would you bring it home on your shoes? That deep emotional context of both the global and the personal was happening at once.”

People in the highest ranges of management at the hospital stored asking how Dr. Kato was doing.

“His survival represented the fate of all, in a funny way,” Dr. Emond mentioned.

A Covid affected person in Billings, Mont., hooked as much as extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. “When someone is on ECMO, you’re suddenly into the absolute highest-mortality group,” Dr. Pereira mentioned.Credit…Larry Mayer/The Billings Gazette, through Associated Press

Pushing the limits in surgical procedure

Dr. Emond in 2008 had lured Dr. Kato away from the University of Miami, for his uncommon experience in intestinal transplants and so-called ex vivo operations for most cancers, through which the surgeon cuts out belly organs to get at hard-to-reach tumors, after which sews the organs again in. Most essential, Dr. Emond noticed in Dr. Kato a willingness to push the limits of what may very well be finished surgically to assist sufferers.

“He brought his culture of innovation,” Dr. Emond mentioned. “And his personal capability, his ability to work for long hours, never quitting, never giving up, no matter how difficult the situation, carrying out operations that many would deem impossible.”

In his first yr at Columbia, Dr. Kato and his staff operated efficiently on a 7-year-old woman, Heather McNamara, whose household had been instructed by a number of different hospitals that her belly most cancers was inoperable. The surgical procedure, which concerned eradicating six organs after which placing them again in, took 23 hours.

More and extra sufferers from round the nation, and round the world, started searching for out Dr. Kato for operations that different hospitals couldn’t or wouldn’t carry out. He had additionally begun making journeys to Venezuela to carry out liver transplants for youngsters and educate the process to native surgeons, and he created a basis to assist assist the work there in addition to in different Latin American nations.

As Dr. Kato’s colleagues struggled to save lots of him, a ready record of surgical sufferers clung to hopes that he would quickly be capable to save them.

Gradually, Dr. Pereira mentioned, there have been indicators of restoration.

“You come in early in the morning to see him,” he mentioned. “The hospital hallways are empty and everybody’s looking at each other, scared and anxious. You go into the intensive care unit dreading bad news, and the team is giving you a sort of hopeful thumbs-up that maybe he’s looking better.”

Dr. Kato spent about a month on a ventilator, and a week on ECMO. Like many individuals with extreme Covid, he was stricken by horrifying and vivid hallucinations and delusions. In one, he was arrested at the Battle of Waterloo. In one other, he had been intentionally contaminated with anthrax; solely a hospital in Antwerp might save him, however he couldn’t get there. He noticed the white mild that some folks describe after near-death experiences. “I felt like I died,” he mentioned.

He had spent a lot of his grownup life in hospitals, however by no means as a affected person.

“I never got sick,” he mentioned. “I had never faced the reality of death.”

When he was lastly freed of the machines and respiration on his personal, his docs had been elated.

But the pleasure pale when he regained full consciousness and it was clear he was not himself. He was nonetheless caught up in the delusions. More worrisome, he appeared confused, his razor-sharp thoughts not totally again.

“I wasn’t making sense,” Dr. Kato mentioned.

Scans discovered a blood clot and a hemorrhage in Dr. Kato’s mind. Although not extreme, they had been nonetheless troubling.

“I remember seeing him, and not seeing him the way I wanted him to be,” Dr. Pereira mentioned, including that at the finish of sooner or later, “I went to my car and broke down. I said, ‘I hate Covid. Why won’t you even let me have a small victory?’”

Dr. Emond mentioned, “Once we got over, ‘Would he survive?’ in our minds was, ‘Will he be able to be a doctor again?’ He suffered. He paid a huge price.”

But the mind hemorrhage and clot turned out to be minor. Mentally, Dr. Kato rapidly recovered.

About a week after coming off the ventilator, he mentioned, “I woke up in my mind.”

Physically, he struggled. He had misplaced 25 kilos, practically all of it muscle. He wanted a feeding tube. He was so weak that sooner or later it took him an hour to achieve the machine to regulate the incline of his mattress, and when he lastly bought it, he was too weak to push the button. His hair fell out. A shoulder harm from the means he had been positioned stored him from totally elevating one arm, and a few of his neck and again muscle mass had wasted away. He wanted in depth bodily remedy.

His household couldn’t go to. Painful as that was for them, he mentioned, it could have been simply as properly that they by no means noticed him at his worst, in a net of tubes and machines in the intensive care unit.

In late May 2020, after two months in the hospital, he went house, his departure cheered by about 200 workers members, chanting “Kato! Kato!”

‘He was back.’

In August, he started performing surgical procedure once more. For the first operation, a hernia restore, he used a robotic machine that allowed him to work sitting down.

“It was a really big day for everybody,” Dr. Emond mentioned. “A lot of us went in to see how it was going.”

By September, Dr. Kato was performing liver transplants, along with his sore shoulder wrapped in athletic tape.

“He was back,” Dr. Emond mentioned. “I think he was working exceptionally hard to prove to himself and everybody else that he was back.”

His first transplant affected person wound up staying in the similar hospital room the place Dr. Kato had been, they usually snapped a image collectively.

“From there, I’m kind of full speed,” Dr. Kato mentioned. By March of this yr, he had accomplished 40 transplants and 30 different operations.

Memories of his personal restoration have tempered his dealings with sufferers.

“I can be much more on their side, in their shoes, in their thinking,” he mentioned.

He so disliked the thickened liquids used to assist restore swallowing skill that now, he’s much less inclined to push them on reluctant sufferers.

“It just tastes so horrible,” he mentioned. “I really cannot blame anybody who cannot take it. A few weeks ago, a patient complained about the thickened milk. In the past I would have just said, ‘You have to do this to get better.’ Now I can say, ‘Maybe you don’t have to do it.’ Each patient may have a different way.”

After two months in the hospital, Dr. Kato was discharged in May 2020. By August, he was performing surgical procedure once more.Credit…Joshua Bright for The New York Times

He even affords tips about the hospital menu.

“The patient hates the food, I hate the food, but I know the Cajun shrimp is a little better,” he mentioned. Protein drinks? “I recommend the strawberry flavor.”

When he was taken off the ventilator, at first he couldn’t converse.

“I learned that when you cannot talk, it does not mean you are not thinking,” he mentioned. “The mind is so clear.”

Facing loss of life has additionally introduced his profession and his targets into a sharper focus, he mentioned.

“You don’t really want to waste your time, because you never know — one day all of a sudden you are in this situation,” he mentioned.

He realized, he mentioned, that he should recruit extra surgeons to proceed the work that he and his basis had began, to carry liver transplants to youngsters in Latin America.

“If I died and nobody else picks it up, that’s a problem,” he mentioned.

He additionally feels pushed to advertise and educate others to carry out the advanced most cancers operations that contain eradicating a number of organs to achieve a tumor, after which placing the organs again in.

“This cannot be just my thing forever,” he mentioned “It has to be everybody’s.”