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A Physician Shares His Experience as a Patient on the COVID-19 Front Lines

Robert K. Cleary, MD, FACS, FASCRS
American Board of Colon and Rectal Surgery
Specialty: Colon and Rectal Surgery
American Board of Surgery
Specialty: Surgery

Dr. Robert ClearyRobert K. Cleary, MD, knew that a global pandemic was coming. He just never imagined he would be one of its victims. Instead of helping patients on the front lines, he found himself in a bed in his own hospital, fighting for his life.

Testing Positive
In late March, Dr. Cleary, a colon and rectal surgeon, felt unwell and had a low-grade fever. Unfortunately, he tested positive for the virus that causes Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). He believes he contracted the virus through a family member who had recently flown domestically and developed a persistent cough.

For seven days following his positive test, he had aches, chills, and shortness of breath. His colleagues had been following his progress on a mobile app and recommended that he be admitted to the hospital.

Before he left for the hospital for what he thought could be the last time, Dr. Cleary opened up his computer and wrote a letter to his family, including his wife and six adult children. In the letter, he told them how much he loved them, and how proud he was of them. He knew that if he did not return home, they eventually would find the letter on his computer. His wife drove him to the hospital, kissed him goodbye (both had masks on), and reluctantly dropped him off at the emergency department. He was alone.

“The emergency room physician showed me my lung x-rays and they were frightening. It was clear, even to me, that I absolutely needed to be admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) immediately.”

Being (a) Patient
Dr. Cleary was in the ICU for 11 days. During that time, he experienced hallucinations, fever, rapid breathing, and painful deep vein thromboses (DVTs) that inhibited his ability to walk even to the restroom. Hospital staff checked in with him frequently and tried to comfort him and keep him grounded in reality. He thought about his life and made peace with dying. By Day 7, his condition had deteriorated enough that there was discussion with the critical care team about intubating him and placing him on a ventilator. “At that point, my rapid, irregular breathing was so bad that I almost wanted to be intubated to give me some relief, but the criteria for ventilation was changing and the critical care team decided to wait, if possible.”

Fortunately, his condition improved shortly after the intubation conversation and after a few more days he was able to be discharged with an oxygen nasal cannula. His wife, a nurse, cared for him at home. Dr. Cleary credits his recovery to the outstanding St. Joseph team, particularly the Pulmonary Critical Care and Infectious Disease, Respiratory Therapy, and ICU nursing staffs. “I am alive because these compassionate and expert teams cared about me as a person and monitored the landscape of an illness, the treatment of which was changing on a day-by-day basis.”

The Road Ahead
Today, Dr. Cleary is eager to be back at work as soon as his health returns. His voice is weak and raspy, and he coughs often. Though he is finally off oxygen, his pulmonary function has a long road to recovery. He dropped an alarming 25 pounds in the hospital, so he is pushing himself to eat. While his improvement is slower than he would like, Dr. Cleary feels very fortunate that none of his other organ systems appear to have been impacted by COVID-19, which is not the case for everyone.

Dr. Cleary is concerned that people are not taking this virus as seriously as they should. “Early on, people kept dismissing this virus as being no worse than the ‘regular flu.’ So far, COVID-19 has killed otherwise healthy people in their 40s, 50s and 60s, all of whom would survive the flu. We must not forget how deadly this can be now, and in the future, when we have moved past the curve.”

Certified by the American Board of Colon and Rectal Surgery, Dr. Cleary is the Program Director, Colon and Rectal Surgery and Director of Research, Department of Surgery at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor Hospital, which serves seven counties in southeast Michigan. He serves as the president of the Association of Program Directors for Colon and Rectal Surgery.

(Published: June 11, 2020)

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