One year ago this week, I was admitted to the specialized COVID-19 hospital at Bethesda in St. Paul, Minn.
Along with my colleagues at the University of Minnesota and M Health Fairview, I had spent the weeks prior in a focused race to both respond and react to the novel coronavirus that was beginning its infectious impact on our globe. We saw what was happening in New York City, and in our daily command center meetings, we were in hot pursuit of personal protective equipment, as well as ventilator and intensive care unit capacity.
I was confident we were making the right decision to stand up a special unit — a hospital focused exclusively on this new somewhat mysterious virus. It was designed to do what an academic medical center or learning health system is trained to do. To learn quickly through science and then pivot treatments as we discover what is most effective. And ultimately, to transfer those learnings to the community at large.
To hear an audio version of this column, listen here:
So here I was, leading the University of Minnesota Physicians practice in the early stages of a response, when I developed a slight cough. I had spent the day with some surgeons who had volunteered to do fit testing for a new mask prototype. The engineers we worked with thought they were close to a successful model, so I left work feeling hopeful.
That feeling didn’t last long. By the next morning, I realized my toothpaste didn’t taste right and I had a slight fever. I did the responsible thing and got a test that proved indeed I had COVID-19.
And that’s when I learned the humility that comes with this virus. COVID-19 really doesn’t care what else is going on in your life. It is going to do what its nature is designed to do — infect and cause harm.
I spent a few days trying to convince my colleagues and family that my gasping breaths and haggard appearance really were nothing. But I’m lucky to be surrounded by compassionate colleagues and family who ignored my protests. My wife took me to the emergency department where I was promptly sent by ambulance to our new COVID facility.
I arrived at Bethesda thinking I’d stay for a day or two and quickly get back to my important work. And I was wrong. I was in the hospital for 11 days.
When I left the hospital, I was told it would take four to six weeks to fully recover. I scoffed, thinking it would be four to six days. And I was wrong again.
Reflecting now on the experiences of this year — both personal and professional — I’ve developed an important new deep appreciation for my profession. Academic medicine is based on the idea what we still have so much to learn from disease and about our physical selves. Much of that learning is based on science and discovery.
It also is found in the art of medicine. The medical arts are found in humility, in compassion, and in honest relationships amongst family and colleagues.
COVID taught my institution much about resilience and our capacity to rise to unanticipated challenges. And it taught me that medicine is truly a team sport best performed when we’re honest, compassionate, and humble in its practice.
Bevan Yueh, MD, MPH, is the CEO for University of Minnesota Physicians and department head and professor in the Department of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Minnesota Medical School.