56 Days

I was one of the first 10,000 people in the country to have COVID...

My name is Mathew. I’m a minimally invasive surgeon in the gynecology department at Penn, where I’m an associate professor.

I contracted coronavirus very early, and then I rapidly deteriorated during the first week. I had a weird cough. I was fearful that it was coronavirus, and it was. By Saturday the 14th of March, I was in the Pennsylvania Hospital emergency room to get a chest x-ray, thinking I was just going to stroll in there and stroll back out, and that quickly turned into the need to admit me. I stayed at Pennsylvania Hospital for a week. And I was on a variety of medicines, but my oxygen requirements were rapidly increasing.

On the 27th of March, they recommended that I be intubated, because they didn't feel like it was safe for me to continue the way I was. They started talking about transferring me to HUP, which I think was the right decision. So I was intubated. I remained in the intensive care unit for about 56 days and I remained on the ventilator for over 30 days. I was critically ill. I suffered a stroke early on.

For about two weeks while I was in the ICU at Penn, they noticed that I wasn't really moving my left arm. And they noticed that I wasn't moving the whole left side of my body. I lost part of my vision in the process, so I can't see peripherally out of my left.

I'm trying to be pragmatic and optimistic. It could have been catastrophic. I could have lost the use of my right arm. I could have developed aphasia, and I wouldn't be able to speak. I'm still communicative. I can still see the world. I'm going to take it for what it is. I can enjoy life.

During the process of me being under, I was aware of a lot. Much more than I thought I would have been. I was aware of bright lights, lots of sounds. And I kept thinking to myself, is this what the ICU is all about? This is torture. I thought I should write a book for students and for physicians to say the ICU is just loud. It's booming, it's bright lights, it’s strobe lights.

Of course it's not all that, but that's how I was interpreting it. I had ICU delirium. And I remember thinking, when I get out of this joint, and I talk to my patients, I won’t talk to them like this, I won't touch them like this. I won't be this way. I'm going to try to be a better physician.

I don't think there's anything they could have done differently. But as a physician, I wish someone had told me that your patient might be looking at you but be interpreting things very differently. The patient’s experience might be very different than your very own. So you may be speaking in a whisper, but your patient could be hearing a scream. And I think having that understanding as a treating provider, that the experience you're trying to give to a patient may not be the experience they're actually getting, and that there's a disconnect... I wish they would have said, “How do you feel, what do you need?"

And I don't think as a physician, we're empathetic to the plight of patients who are dependent upon us for their everything. Patients would come to me hemorrhaging, and I would try to reassure the patients "Don't worry, the blood doesn't bother me." They would look horrified that I was going to witness them in that vulnerable state.

But you know what? I didn't really get it. It's a vulnerability that you don't want others to see. One of the most traumatizing things for me as a patient was lying in my urine and feces. For a month I was vulnerable, and I hated it. All I could think of was "Somebody please come and clean me up."

Oftentimes during our rounds, we say, "We'll see you later." What does later mean? Tomorrow? Next week? I'll see you in the office? Patients lack the ability to know that "Oh, you'll probably be back tomorrow on rounds." Because that's what we really mean. And I remember thinking, "You know what, I'm gonna start saying what I really mean to my patients. I'll see you tomorrow morning”. I was an attentive physician, and I am an attentive physician, but I feel like I could have been more.

Through this whole process and my rehabilitation, I realized that I'm probably not going to be practicing medicine again -- which is very hard, because I identify as a surgeon. But I can't really use my hand the way I would normally. So, I don't think I'm going to be operating on anyone soon. And that's fine.

I'm going to reinvent myself. I don't know how, but I'm going to find a way to be resilient and to have a career at Penn. I may not operate, but I will do something that I find important and worthwhile. We all go into medicine to help others. And there's still that need to help. I think that helper gene is going to be there for me forever.

Thank God for Penn, and for saving me. Thank god for the team for putting their life at risk to take care of me. I look forward to practicing medicine again, if I can. And if I can, I think I'm going to do it very differently.


The Penn Medicine Listening Lab is a storytelling initiative that embraces the power of listening as a form of care. While the stories featured here aspire to uplift and empower, they may also describe experiences of trauma and suffering. We recognize that listening can be a vulnerable experience and offer resources at Penn Medicine and beyond through our website for those in need of support.

Tags: Being Present