For Andy Michalowitz, D.O.’14, the last 12-plus months were supposed to be a “relaxed but focused year” to hone his surgical skills and clinical acumen at New York University Langone Health in the largest orthopedic surgery training program in the country, “in one of the greatest cities on earth.” It was supposed to include a “once-in-a-lifetime trip” to Zambia, where he and an attending physician planned to set up an NYU orthopedic center.
Then COVID-19 derailed both. Instead, early this spring Michalowitz found himself helping craft a statement to his department that, for the foreseeable future, they would have to “accept morbidity in our pediatric patients over mortality in more vulnerable adults.”
“I never imagined what it would be like to have to tell a family that I could not fix their daughter’s type 3 supracondylar humerus fracture because all surgical suites are filled with prone, vented COVID-19 patients,” he says.
Michalowitz and his wife, Rebecca Minardi, M.P.H.’12, welcomed their second child in 2020, but that, too, didn’t happen as planned. She was 29 weeks pregnant when the couple decided she and their 20-month-old son should stay with her parents in Ohio.
“I remember on March 12 realizing, ‘Okay, it’s really here,’ when the mayor shut down Broadway, one of the bedrocks of New York City,” she says.
Meanwhile, Michalowitz answered a call for volunteers to assist the critical care, emergency department and internal medicine teams in treating COVID-19 patients.
“Orthopedic surgeons are not meant to sit at home and read medical journals or watch Netflix all day, and the nightly cheers for the heroes on the front lines outside my small Harlem apartment were too much to bear,” he says.
He was promptly placed in NYU Tisch Hospital, a COVID-19 intensive care “step-down” unit. He was joined by residents in psychiatry, internal medicine, urology and dermatology; a junior intern; and two attending physicians – the head of NYU clinical affairs and an ophthalmologist, in practice for 20 years, who had not personally done a history and physical since residency. “It was a motley crew of medicine if I ever saw one,” he says.
Motley but heroic, he adds. Hospital staff did their best despite a lack of published randomized control trials and large case series on possible treatments. Michalowitz had to frantically brush up on aspects of internal medicine and pulmonology that had faded in his years of surgical training. One of his patients was a 31-week pregnant COVID-19 patient, a nurse who had been tasked with coronavirus testing in February. At one point, Michalowitz received a message that stated, “We have placed a c-section tray at the bedside…you know…just in case we are in a code elsewhere and can’t get there in time.”
Fortunately, that patient delivered a healthy baby, as did Minardi. The family now resides in Peoria, IL, where Michalowitz is in practice in pediatric orthopedic surgery. But they will never forget their New York experiences – the bad, such as seeing refrigerated trucks parked outside hospitals; the strange, such as riding completely empty subway trains; and the inspiring.
“It was humbling to see so many people step up,” Michalowitz says.