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When the doctor becomes the patient

Contracting COVID-19 taught a Roseland ER doctor about the terrible isolation of the disease.

Dr. Roy Werner, medical director in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Roseland Community Hospital.
Dr. Roy Werner, medical director in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Roseland Community Hospital, contracted COVID-19.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Paul Kalanithi’s 2016 posthumous memoir “When Breath Becomes Air” was a big best-seller for obvious reasons. Here was a brilliant neurosurgeon facing terminal lung cancer, grappling with death at a young age.

It also served up one of those prince-and-the-pauper role reversals that capture the public’s imagination. The bold, resourceful doctor becomes the fearful, helpless patient, perched on an examining table in a thin cotton gown, awaiting his fate. The proud made humble.

When I was writing Monday’s column on how hospitals are faring at this point in the COVID-19 epidemic, I came upon a digression too lengthy to fit in but too interesting to leave out.

I was talking with Dr. Roy Werner, director of the department of emergency medicine at Roseland Community Hospital, about whether medical personnel are more at risk in the intensive care unit, masked and gowned and leaning over a COVID-19 patient on a ventilator, or sitting in their living room at home with their children traipsing in and out.

“My family has been fantastically supportive,” said Werner, who lives in Huntley. “I have a wife who really gets it. We have two teenaged kids, and I’ve been able to explain it to them. I had COVID a few weeks ago, stayed in one room of the house, the kids did their own things.”

I asked how the illness affected him.

“It scared the daylights out of me,” he said. “The shortness of breath, the pain. I was very fortunate to get through it in 10 to 14 days. I feel very blessed. My wife took a little bit of a chance, trying to take care of me. For a while, it felt like I was in a prison. She would put stuff on a table and push it into the room with her foot.”

Did experiencing the illness himself give him any insight into treating COVID-19 patients?

“It did, it absolutely did,” Werner said. “Watching families not be able to be at the bedside of a loved one, whether sick or dying. Sitting with COVID in my own home, not being able to touch or hug or even be in the same room with my children or my wife. It’s the most depressing, horrible thing I took away from the virus. It’s miserable.”

Speaking of misery. When a patient dies at Roseland, Werner sometimes has the grim duty of telling their family and does something perhaps unexpected.

“I will take my mask off,” he said. “I feel horrible, hiding behind the mask. So I step back five or six feet, take the mask off, and give them the news.”

Which leads to the question: How does he think he contracted COVID-19?

“I’ve got it narrowed down to two scenarios,” he said. “I’ve had multiple exposures. Statistically, I was going to get it. Most of us emergency guys, we know we’re high risk and exposed a lot. I can think of two patients, critically ill.”

That was the first possibility.

“Instead of taking care of myself, I just ran into the room and started doing things. One coughed directly into my face. My mistake was not doing the thing we’re trained to do: make sure you care for yourself. That two minutes it takes can save you.”

The second is not nearly as dramatic: kids in sports. Both his son and daughter are on teams — and youth sports teams take risks, especially when they depart rigorous Illinois into the looser, bullets-will-not-harm-us world of neighboring states.

“It’s driving me insane,” he said, a line that every father should have embroidered and framed in the kitchen.

Speaking of children. Some readers, with the vaccine starting to arrive, will drop their guard, figuring they’re home free. You’re not. I’m taking the opposite approach, and locking down more. My boys are coming home from school this week; we’re all going to mask up in the general areas of the house, which we didn’t do over the summer, because the illness is spiking right now. They’ve been out in the greater world, and my understanding of the way laughing fate works is: I’ll probably get COVID-19 right before I’m supposed to finally receive the vaccine.

“If only he could have held on another few days ....”

So keep up your guard. Wear your mask. Stay safe.

“We’ve looked at historical pandemics,” said Werner. “The second wave can be brutal.”