From doctor to COVID-19 patient: Anesthesiologist shares his story of recovery
In mid-March, Eugene Vovchuk was going about his work as an anesthesiologist at Detroit Medical Center’s Harper University Hospital. He had heard about COVID-19, of course, but he hadn’t treated any patients with the disease yet. And the 38-year-old doctor was not prepared for his own ordeal with the virus, which would land him in the hospital for nearly a month.
Vovchuk originally thought he had food poisoning. He actually got a test for COVID-19, but it came back negative. The test was wrong though, and after dealing with a very high fever for several days, he was admitted to the hospital. Things escalated quickly from there.
“On my admission to Harper Hospital, they took a chest x-ray and told me ‘You’re developing pneumonia.’ And from then on, it progressed very quickly with just a shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, me requiring higher and higher levels of oxygen, and eventually being intubated and being placed on a ventilator,” Vovchuk explained.
He was transferred to the University of Michigan and spent nearly a month in the hospital. Most of that time he was on a ventilator and heavily sedated. Doctors had to put him into a medically induced coma to allow the machine to control his lungs. Vovchuk has a wife and two children under the age of four. None of them were allowed to visit during his hospital stay due to concerns about spreading the novel coronavirus. Vovchuk said that was devastating and incredibly stressful for his family.
“My wife learned a lot of medicine very quickly. She had to call physicians daily, or actually at certain points she was getting hourly updates on how I was doing from both nurses and physicians,” Vovchuk explained. “She was very strong, and it was extremely stressful for her because she had to take care of the small children, on top of being quarantined, on top of me being gravely ill.”
Being hospitalized and critically ill for so long took a toll on Vovchuk’s body. He lost over 30 pounds of mostly muscle mass. He still can’t walk for very long without feeling winded. Picking up his small children is nearly impossible, and he needs his wife to help him open a water bottle. Vovchuk said he knows he still has a long road to recovery ahead of him.
“For every week that I’m in the hospital or kind of bed bound, it takes four to six weeks to recover strength. Given the fact that I was hospitalized for almost three weeks, I’d say three to four months is what I would need with intensive physical therapy to kind of get back to where I was prior to being hospitalized.”
A plethora of medications help control his elevated heart rate and reduce the risk of blood clots, as well as helping with the lung damage he sustained. As he reflects on the chaos caused by the pandemic and his own time battling COVID-19, Vovchuk said he feels thankful to be alive and recovering. He recalled the moment in the hospital when he realized how serious his ordeal had been.
“Once I was with it mentally, I started realizing what had happened and how lucky I was to survive,” he said. “And I felt, and I still do feel that, you know, that I’m either reborn or I have a second chance at life. It was just a very awe-inspiring feeling to see [my family] again and to realize what I’d been through.”
This article was written by Stateside production assistant Olive Scott.