Two doctors in masks in an operating room
Sadovnikoff (left) and Stone (right). “Social distancing bought us time,” Stone says. “I know people are hurting and it’s hard, but it is making a big difference.”

Two anesthesiologists found themselves working together in the COVID ICU at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. They are Dr. Alex Stone ’12, resident anesthesiologist, and Dr. Nick Sadovnikoff ’77, P’15, faculty anesthesiologist, co-director of the surgical intensive care unit and co-chair of the hospital ethics committee. They spoke with Mary Elizabeth Strunk.

Dr. Alex Stone: March started off as the typical surgical ICU month, with postoperative and trauma patients. Then the world completely changed. They opened a new COVID ICU and I was transferred over. It was a bit of a scary turn, because there were a lot of unknowns and some providers were being quarantined.

Dr. Nick Sadovnikoff: We have a duty to treat our patients. But how far does that duty extend when putting our own lives and the lives of our loved ones in danger? In the COVID ICU, there was barely enough PPE. That drove Alex to explore alternative PPE and co-found with Jackie Boehme.

AS: By the middle of the month, there were no family members allowed in the COVID unit. That was hard, to not have that human connection. I don’t think anyone goes into medicine to write progress notes.

NS: It was dystopian: every patient was more or less the same. Room after room of intubated, ventilated, nonresponding, either deeply sedated or even paralyzed patients, either supine or prone, so you don’t even see their faces. We made adjustments every day and hoped they would get better, so we could let them wake up and breathe on their own. The nurses were in the patients’ rooms all the time. They are my heroes in this pandemic, because they were in the crosshairs much more than we were.

AS: Our PPE situation is better now. And people are being creative: ICU nurses use baby monitors to send messages of hope to patients’ rooms. Respiratory therapists and the anesthesia group have come up with many projects to do things better and more safely. It’s inspiring.

NS: Necessity is the mother of invention, and, boy, did the invention start when the necessity arose.

AS: Nick, did you sleep at all in March? You had clinical responsibilities, you were working on the crisis center in the background. You also direct the ICU fellows who were being deployed everywhere, and people were coming in and out of quarantine.

NS: There were short nights of sleep, but my fellows all went in full-throttle. One of them did contract COVID and was out for five weeks. Now we get to ramp up the ORs again, because there’s an overwhelming backlog of cases. Close to 5,000 patients. Most had to postpone cancer operations. We’re buckling up for a busy summer.

AS: Social distancing bought us time. I know people are hurting and it’s hard, but it is making a big difference. And my heart goes out to the class of 2020.

NS: I could see how this would scare young alumni away from medicine. It’s never been quite as palpably dangerous. That’s got to be daunting for someone graduating from college and planning to go to med school. But good people will be needed even more than ever, and Amherst definitely produces good people.