Diary of a Rheumatologist Who Briefly Became a COVID Hospitalist

Karmela Kim Chan, MD


July 27, 2020

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When the coronavirus pandemic hit New York City in early March, the Hospital for Special Surgery leadership decided that the best way to serve the city was to stop elective orthopedic procedures temporarily and use the facility to take on patients from its sister institution, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.

Karmela Kim Chan, MD

As in other institutions, it was all hands on deck. We have hospitalists that are accustomed to managing postsurgical care and internists familiar with pre-op surgical clearances. But they needed more help, and soon, other internal medicine subspecialists were asked to volunteer, including rheumatologists and primary care sports medicine doctors.

As a rheumatologist, it had been well over 10 years since I had last done any inpatient work. I was filled with trepidation, but I was also excited to dive in.

April 4:
Feeling very unmoored. I am in unfamiliar territory, and it's terrifying. There are so many things that I no longer know how to do. Thankfully, the hospitalists are gracious, extremely supportive, and helpful.

My N95 doesn't fit well. It's never fit — not during residency or fellowship, not in any job I've had, and not today. The lady fit-testing me said she was sorry, but the look on her face said, "I'm sorry, but you're going to die."

April 7:
We don't know how to treat coronavirus. I've sent some patients home, others I've sent to the ICU. Thank goodness for treatment algorithms from leadership, but we are sorely lacking good-quality data.

Our infectious disease doctor doesn't think hydroxychloroquine works at all; I suspect he is right. The guidance right now is to give hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin to everyone who is sick enough to be admitted, but there are methodologic flaws in the early enthusiastic preprints, and so far, I've not noticed any demonstrable benefit.

The only thing that seems to be happening is that I am seeing more QT prolongation — not something I previously counseled my rheumatology patients on.

April 9:
The patients have been, with a few exceptions, alone in the room. They're not allowed to have visitors and are required to wear masks all the time. Anyone who enters their rooms is fully covered up so you can barely see them. It's anonymous and dehumanizing.

We're instructed to take histories by phone in order to limit the time spent in each room. I buck this instruction; I still take histories in person because human contact seems more important now than ever.

Except maybe I should be smarter about this. One of my patients refuses any treatment, including oxygen support. She firmly believes this is a result of 5G networks — something I later discovered was a common conspiracy theory. She refused to wear a mask despite having a very bad cough. She coughed in my face a lot when we were chatting. My face with my ill-fitting N95 mask. Maybe the fit-testing lady's eyes weren't lying and I will die after all.

April 15:
On the days when I'm not working as a hospitalist, I am still doing remote visits with my rheumatology patients. It feels good to be doing something familiar and something I'm actually good at. But it is surreal to be faced with the quotidian on one hand and life and death on the other.

I recently saw a fairly new patient, and I still haven't figured out if she has a rheumatic condition or if her symptoms all stem from an alcohol use disorder. In our previous visits, she could barely acknowledge that her drinking was an issue. On today's visit, she told me she was 1½ months sober.

I don't know her very well, but it was the happiest news I'd heard in a long time. I was so beside myself with joy that I cried, which says more about my current emotional state than anything else, really.

April 21:
On my panel of patients, I have three women with COVID-19 — all of whom lost their husbands to COVID-19, and none of whom were able to say their goodbyes. I cannot even begin to imagine what it must be like to survive this period of illness, isolation, and fear, only to be met on the other side by grief.

Rheumatology doesn't lend itself too well to such existential concerns; I am not equipped for this. Perhaps my only advantage as a rheumatologist is that I know how to use IVIG, anakinra, and tocilizumab.

Someone on my panel was started on anakinra, and it turned his case around. Would he have gotten better without it anyway? We'll never know for sure.

April 28:
Patients seem to be requiring prolonged intubation. We have now reached the stage where patients are alive but trached and PEGed. One of my patients had been intubated for close to 3 weeks. She was one of four people in her family who contracted the illness (they had had a dinner party before New York's state of emergency was declared). We thought she might die once she was extubated, but she is still fighting. Unconscious, unarousable, but breathing on her own.

Will she ever wake up? We don't know. We put the onus on her family to make decisions about placing a PEG tube in. They can only do so from a distance with imperfect information gleaned from periodic, brief FaceTime interactions — where no interaction happens at all.

May 4:
It's my last day as a "COVID hospitalist." When I first started, I felt like I was being helpful. Walking home in the middle of the 7 PM cheers for healthcare workers frequently left me teary eyed. As horrible as the situation was, I was proud of myself for volunteering to help and appreciative of a broken city's gratitude toward all healthcare workers in general. Maybe I bought into the idea that, like many others around me, I am a hero.

I don't feel like a hero, though. The stuff I saw was easy compared with the stuff that my colleagues in critical care saw. Our hospital accepted the more stable patient transfers from our sister hospitals. Patients who remained in the NewYork-Presbyterian system were sicker, with encephalitis, thrombotic complications, multiorgan failure, and cytokine release syndrome. It's the doctors who took care of those patients who deserve to be called heroes.

No, I am no hero. But did my volunteering make a difference? It made a difference to me. The overwhelming feeling I am left with isn't pride; it's humility. I feel humbled that I could feel so unexpectedly touched by the lives of people that I had no idea I could feel touched by.

My patient Esther [name changed to hide her identity] died from COVID-19. She was MY patient — not a patient I met as a COVID hospitalist, but a patient with rheumatoid arthritis whom I cared for for years.

She had scleromalacia and multiple failed scleral grafts, which made her profoundly sad. She fought her anxiety fiercely and always with poise and panache. One way she dealt with her anxiety was that she constantly messaged me via our EHR portal. She ran everything by me and trusted me to be her rock.

The past month has been so busy that I just now noticed it had been a month since I last heard from her. I tried to call her but got her voicemail. It wasn't until I exchanged messages with her ophthalmologist that I found out she had passed away from complications of COVID-19.

She was taking rituximab and mycophenolate. I wonder if these drugs made her sicker than she would have been otherwise; it fills me with sadness. I wonder if she was alone like my other COVID-19 patients. I wonder if she was afraid. I am sorry that I wasn't able to say goodbye.

Karmela Kim Chan, MD, is an assistant professor at Weill Cornell Medical College and an attending physician at Hospital for Special Surgery and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Before moving to New York City, she spent 7 years in private practice in Rhode Island and was a columnist for a monthly rheumatology publication, writing about the challenges of starting life as a full-fledged rheumatologist in a private practice.

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