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A crying doctor, patients gasping for air and limited coronavirus tests: A look inside a triage tent in Chicago

Michael Dolan describes his experience at Northwestern as “an entirely preventable human disaster” — but he doesn’t blame the hospital or its medical staff.

Michael Dolan looks out the window of his Streeterville home, where he’s been self-isolated for two weeks.
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Michael Dolan started crying late Friday afternoon as he walked away from Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Dolan wasn’t crying because he had spent a week and a half dealing with severe coronavirus symptoms or because an X-ray confirmed he had an acute upper respiratory lung infection. He wasn’t crying about the fact that he was developing pneumonia or that he had just consoled a crying doctor.

Dolan was crying because, after spending hours at the downtown hospital’s outdoor triage tent listening to gasping patients all around him, he had just witnessed the first signs of what he believes is the health care system collapsing. It was “an entirely preventable human disaster” caused not by the hard-working health care professionals, but by failed policies, he says.

This didn’t happen at a poorly resourced or rural hospital, either. This was one of the nation’s best medical centers.

And despite 15 days of serious symptoms, including a 105-degree fever, Dolan still hasn’t been tested for COVID-19.

‘Can you imagine what’s happening at community hospitals?’

Dolan is a native Chicagoan and former executive at The Onion who built a career traveling the world as a media producer and consultant.

He’s also a relatively healthy 39-year-old. But when he walked into his Northwestern doctor’s office March 17 for his regularly scheduled physical, his physician took one look and was sure Dolan had the coronavirus.

Dolan was told he couldn’t get tested, though, because he was young and hadn’t traveled from a hotspot. Instead, the doctor would consider Dolan an unofficial coronavirus patient and check in with him a week later for updates on his condition — just as the physician was already doing with 11 others.

Cars approach theCOVID-19 testing area at Northwestern Hospital, on March 20, 2020.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

That night, the symptoms started. And a week and a half later, they had gotten progressively worse. So Dolan’s doctor told him on Friday to go to Northwestern for a test at the hospital’s outdoor coronavirus triage tent.

“If I had asthma, if I had a heart condition, I’d be dead by now,” Dolan said, blaming the federal government for a lack of timely guidance and an insufficient number of tests that prevented him from receiving early treatment.

When Dolan showed up to Northwestern, he had a fever and chills, his heart rate was fluctuating and he had a cough and migraine. A doctor there told him she knew he certainly had COVID-19 and, according to Dolan, said he was “the worst patient your age group that I’ve seen.”

Yet he still was told he couldn’t get a test because he wasn’t 65 years or older.

Dr. Howard Ehrman, a former assistant commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, said Dolan should have been tested. The lack of tests available means the official count of cases is much lower than reality.

“If you take a premiere institution like [Northwestern], one of the best in Chicago and it’s happening, can you imagine what’s happening at community hospitals?” Ehrman said.

And that’s Dolan’s worry, too.

“My indignation is not for me,” Dolan said. “If it falls over on the poor, then we’re going to have millions of people dead in this country.”

‘Now the patient comforting the doctor’

While Dolan sat in a makeshift room in a cold tent on the sidewalk waiting for a lung X-ray, he was surrounded by five women gasping for air, Dolan said, all facing each other in other bays with no privacy. At one point, one of the women collapsed off her chair and was carted away.

“I marveled at the humanity of sitting there, as a sick person, and feeling guilty that I wasn’t as sick as they were and there should be somebody else in my chair,” he said.

A doctor told Dolan he had an acute upper respiratory infection and was developing pneumonia. A nurse gave him the wrong medication which hadn’t been prescribed by the doctor.

The doctor started apologizing for the lack of order and the unavailability of tests that caused Dolan to get to this point — and also started crying.

“I told him you don’t have to apologize to me, you didn’t do this to me, you’re trying to help me,” Dolan said. “So I’m now the patient comforting the doctor. And he needed it. ... He needed somebody to tell him everything was going to be OK.”

Dolan was prescribed an inhaler and anti-inflammatory medication used for malaria.

A spokesman for Northwestern Medicine declined to comment on his case or the hospital’s testing protocol, citing federal law that keeps health care records confidential.

‘The whole system sucks’

Dr. Robert Murphy, executive director for the Institute for Global Health at Northwestern University
Feinberg School of Medicine

Dr. Robert Murphy, executive director for the Institute for Global Health at Northwestern University, said testing is ramping up but blamed the “incompetence” of President Donald Trump and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for a delayed and flawed response to the crisis.

“The whole system sucks,” Murphy said. “You should see these poor guys in the emergency room. All they see is coronavirus patients. COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID, everywhere. They’re all exposed. Dozens of them have gotten infected themselves.

“The whole thing is insane, but don’t blame the health care workers,” Murphy said. “It’s the system’s fault.”

Dolan said he expects a tough road ahead since his pneumonia is still developing. But he’s taking it one day at a time and urges Chicagoans to recognize the moment.

“I don’t think people get the severity,” Dolan said. “We’re watching New York and Washington. But this is about to hit here.”

Michael Dolan
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