A Surgeon’s Personal Battle with COVID-19

July 22, 2020

Patient in Room 5212
by Damian Findlay, DMD, MD, FACS

Division Chief of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at Mercy Hospital St. Louis

As we began to prepare for COVID-19, we implemented protocols to mitigate the spread of the virus and to flatten the curve. I attended numerous meetings where issues of limited testing, ventilator capacity and personal protective equipment availability were discussed. Emotions were running high at Mercy and across the country as we watched COVID-19 wreak havoc in other parts of the world. Then it happened.

On the evening of March 18, I began experiencing fevers, joint pain, muscle aches, chills, sinus congestion and a sore throat. I took my temperature and it was 100.4. I decided to self-quarantine in my basement to distance myself from my family, given my symptoms and learning of two positive contacts. There had been a small outbreak of COVID-19 at a restaurant my wife and I had eaten at five days before my symptoms started. The restaurant officially closed on March 19 due to eight workers testing positive. A family member who visited us three days before my symptoms began also tested positive upon returning to his military base.

I informed my partners, fellows, Mercy administration and my practice manager that I would not be coming in to work as I had symptoms. I wanted to battle the virus at home because my symptoms were initially mild. I kept a log of my symptoms, temperature readings and I was in contact with my primary care physician regularly by telephone to give her updates.

For the next nine days, my symptoms would wax and wane. I would feel better during the day only to have bone-deep chills at night with bouts of delirium that manifested as disturbances in thought processing and hallucinations. I continued to have fevers, muscle aches and then I lost my sense of taste. On day 10, I developed severe gastrointestinal symptoms, chest tightness and shortness of breath. At that point, I informed my wife I needed to go to the hospital. Due to the visitor restrictions hospitals put in place for safety, she dropped me off at the Mercy Hospital St. Louis emergency department. The triage nurses gave me a mask and helped get me into a wheelchair. As they wheeled me in, I couldn’t help thinking I might never see my wife or children again.

They took my vital signs and my blood oxygenation levels were too low, possibly indicating pneumonia. They gave me supplemental oxygen that helped my shortness of breath and improved my oxygenation. I had a chest X-ray that showed evidence of pneumonia. I was admitted to the COVID-19 unit, where I received intravenous antibiotics and non-ventilator oxygen therapy. The physicians in charge of my care ordered a CT scan of my chest to assess the extent of lung issues. The CT scan confirmed pneumonia and showed other radiographic hallmarks of COVID-19.

Dr. Damian Findlay before his COVID-19 battle (left) and the day he was released from the hospital (right). Dr. Damian Findlay before his COVID-19 battle (left) and the day he was released from the hospital (right).

During the first two days in the hospital, I had a lot of time to think while praying fervently. There was a deluge of multiple thoughts about my own mortality, including how it was unfair that my life might end at age 43. I thought about leaving my wife with the responsibility of raising our 6-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son by herself. All I wanted to do was hold my wife and my kids, but I couldn’t. Miraculously, by day three, I finally began to improve clinically. I was no longer having fevers nor was I requiring supplemental oxygen. On the morning of day five, I passed a walk study with respiratory therapy and was discharged to home later that afternoon.

This pandemic will have long-term implications on our health care system. Beyond financial impacts, this pandemic has changed health care. We have implemented the use of additional PPE, infection control and social distancing measures to protect our patients, staff and community. In addition, COVID-19 has had emotional and psychological implications for health care workers fighting on the front lines. I know this firsthand, having been a COVID patient who is now back on the front lines treating patients.

In the Broadway play Funny Girl, Barbara Streisand sings a song called People. One of the most compelling lyrics from the song says, “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” In my time of despair, I was able to draw strength from numerous people, first and foremost, my wife, Torri. She was my greatest source of strength during my hospitalization as her loving words on Facetime kept me sane. Continual calls and text messages from my parents, other family members and friends were also encouraging. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my numerous colleagues at Mercy who encouraged me through kind words and deeds.

People who know me well know that I am extremely proud of my Jamaican heritage. Jamaicans have a saying that, “A tragedy doesn’t hit close to home until it reaches your front door step.” As surgeons, we are trained to provide exemplary surgical care while being empathetic to our patients. It is said that experience is a cruel teacher as first you take the test and then you learn the lesson. This experience has taught me to be even more empathetic to my patients, as I now appreciate the emotions of fear and uncertainty from my experience of being the patient in room 5212.

Damian Findlay DMD, MD, FACS
Division Chief of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at Mercy Hospital Saint Louis
Associate Surgeon Oral Facial Surgery Institute
Diplomate of the American Board of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery
Fellow of the American College of Surgeons
Fellow of the American College of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons