Constable: Treating COVID-19 'like nothing I've ever seen,' Hinsdale doctor says

  • This headgear protects Dr. Christopher O'Connor, a senior anesthesiologist at Rush University Medical Center, as the Hinsdale physician treats patients with COVID-19.

    This headgear protects Dr. Christopher O'Connor, a senior anesthesiologist at Rush University Medical Center, as the Hinsdale physician treats patients with COVID-19. Courtesy of Rush University Medical Center

 
 
Updated 4/4/2020 11:51 AM

At the start of a normal week, Dr. Christopher O'Connor of Hinsdale would be in an operating room at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, taking care of a patient undergoing surgery. This week started with O'Connor manning a newly outfitted intensive care unit specially designed to treat COVID-19 patients.

"I spent two very long days Monday and Tuesday in this new intensive care unit," says O'Connor, who worked back-to-back 12-hour shifts inserting breathing tubes into critically ill patients and monitoring their conditions. Not only are more patients needing ventilators, but the entire procedure has changed.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"A COVID patient who has viral pneumonia, they are a different animal completely," says O'Connor, a member of the American Society of Anesthesiologists in Schaumburg. "They are more challenging to ventilate."

Before the coronavirus, Rush doctors collectively might perform 110 or 120 operations a day, and now they perform fewer than a dozen, says O'Connor, the senior anesthesiologist and vice chair for clinical affairs in the Department of Anesthesiology at Rush.

Gone also are rounds where O'Connor and others would visit patients.

"You don't just walk in. Now you have to take five minutes to suit up," says O'Connor, who dons a mask under his plastic face shield, along with gloves and a protective suit. The bedside manner is all business, with a plan for examining the patient.

"In some ways it is standoffish for the patient," O'Connor says. "It's a very distant environment. You've much more cautious to limit the time. It is dramatically different."

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Starting work in a new ICU, similar to a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) used during wars with professionals spanning medical fields, resulted in O'Connor working with people for the first time. People had "some trepidation about what would happen, but we all came together. I was proud people came together very quickly as a team," he says.

"By the middle of the afternoon, we all knew each other very well. For the first three hours I had to write their names down on my scrubs," O'Connor says. "It was a pretty stressful time for most of us."

Boxes of medical masks arrive at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. On the front lines in the fight against COVID-19, Rush is doing an excellent job of providing staff members with personal protection equipment, says Dr. Christopher O'Connor, a senior anesthesiologist from Hinsdale.
Boxes of medical masks arrive at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. On the front lines in the fight against COVID-19, Rush is doing an excellent job of providing staff members with personal protection equipment, says Dr. Christopher O'Connor, a senior anesthesiologist from Hinsdale. - Courtesy of Rush University Medical Center

Rush has enough personal protective equipment for the staff and ventilators for patients, for now, he says. A typical patient might spend two or three days on a ventilator, but COVID-19 patients tend to remain on the machines for 10 to 14 days.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"The disease is like nothing I've ever seen before, the intensity of the disease," O'Connor says.

While COVID-19 kills older patients and those with underlying health issues, it can also be devastating or deadly for younger, healthy people. With a wife, who works as a nurse anesthetist, and three teenage boys, he takes precautions not to bring COVID-19 home with him.

"It's in the back of your mind. I'm pretty fastidious when I go in to see my patients," he says. After his shift, he discards his scrubs and gear, showers and puts his clothes back on for the drive home.

"When I leave work, I don't think I could put more hand sanitizer on," he says, adding that he washes his hands 30 or 40 times a day.

"My wife is more attuned to the risk than I am," O'Connor says, acknowledging that they talk about the dangers of bringing the virus home and have begun to figure out how they would handle that. "We are concerned about that. We've already set up a plan."

If needed, the basement can be designated as a quarantine zone.

Dr. Christopher O'Connor, a senior anesthesiologist at Rush University Medical Center, normally works on surgeries but now is treating COVID-19 patients.
Dr. Christopher O'Connor, a senior anesthesiologist at Rush University Medical Center, normally works on surgeries but now is treating COVID-19 patients. - Courtesy of Rush University Medical Center

"We worry about it, but it's what we do," O'Connor says. "My biggest fear was, 'Was I going to be able to handle this new position and take care of patients?'"

He suspects Chicago and Rush had a little more time to prepare than New York City, which has the most COVID-19 cases. The American Society of Anesthesiologists has issued statements on the complications of using one ventilator for multiple patients and converting anesthesia gas machines to ICU ventilators, and a list of resources for anesthesiologists and health care professionals.

"I suspect we still have a peak to reach. I think that much of April will be a challenge," O'Connor says. "We keep our fingers crossed that we can stay ahead of the game."

A friend of his wife stopped by one night this week to drop off brownies and a bottle of wine.

"That was a nice gesture," O'Connor says. "But this is our job. This is what we do. Everybody has stress and strains in the professions. Everybody's strained. We just keep doing what we're doing."

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