Many Pomona College alumni in health-related fields are responding to the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. Shennan Weiss ’00 shares his story:
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“I started my new job as a neurohospitalist in an East Brooklyn hospital in March 2020 after transitioning from a career as a physician-scientist to working as a clinical neurologist. As I prepared for my first day of work, Mayor Bill de Blasio was just beginning to warn New Yorkers of the dangers of COVID-19 and the need to socially distance.
“My medium-size community hospital was at the epicenter of the pandemic. During my first week, efforts were made to isolate the COVID-19 patients in the emergency room; the small amount of PPE [personal protective equipment] available was rationed to the attending physicians only.
“At that time, COVID-19 appeared to be only a respiratory illness. By the second and third week of March, however, the pandemic had deepened. The emergency room was full with over 100 patients, nearly all of whom had COVID-19.
“It was impossible to isolate the suspected COVID-19 patients from those who appeared uninfected. Many of the COVID-19 patients were gasping for air despite non-rebreather face masks. Most, but not all, patients were elderly. Adding to the emergency was the fact that PPE remained in very short supply. We were issued one N95 mask, one gown and one face shield for the entire week. Physicians and nurses at my hospital got infected with COVID-19, and many had serious complications.
“As a neurologist I was consulted for cases of stroke, seizure and confusion. We saw an increase in the number of our consultations as the COVID-19 pandemic grew. We saw at least five cases of catastrophic large blood vessel strokes in patients under 60 who were infected with COVID-19. On at least one occasion, we intervened with a thrombectomy revealing a larger than normal blood clot. Not all of these patients survived as a result of related respiratory complications. Those who did survive were discharged to nursing facilities often still suffering from debilitating hemiparesis and aphasia.
“I was also often consulted for cases of confusion called encephalopathy. In some of these patients, a superimposed bacterial infection of the lungs had caused a meningitis. In others, however, it appeared that the COVID-19 virus itself had infected the central nervous system. We would treat these patients with intravenous antibiotics, but only some improved. The scientific literature supports the concept of the existence of a COVID-19 encephalitis; but in the absence of effective anti-viral drugs, a treatment is lacking.
“Writing in late May, my hospital appears to have weathered the storm, and now our emergency room has returned to normal. Many of the COVID-19 patients admitted weeks ago, however, remain sick and dying on the hospital floor and in the ICUs. However, few new patients with COVID-19 are admitted each day.
“It is my hope that this experience with COVID-19, which certainly has been shared at many hospitals in New York and other locations in the U.S., leads medical educators and hospital administrators to focus their energy on preparing effectively for future pandemics that are unfortunately inevitable in the years to come.”