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‘It Took Everything Out of Me’: Dr. Fred Pelzman Shares His Experiences on the Front Lines of COVID-19—As Both Physician and Patient

A veteran primary care physician, internist Dr. Fred Pelzman can count on one hand the times he’s stayed home sick in his quarter-century career. But they pale in comparison to his most recent illness—a bout of COVID-19 that laid him low for nearly two weeks in mid-March, just as the pandemic was escalating in New York City. Dr. Pelzman—the medical director of Weill Cornell Internal Medicine Associates, an associate professor of clinical medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, and an associate attending physician at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center—reflected on his experience about two months after falling ill; his wife and daughter also had symptoms, and though they weren’t tested, they’re presumed to have had the virus as well.

man posing in street wearing scrubs and a mask

My wife thinks she got me sick, and I think I got her sick. She was serving on a grand jury—in a room with dozens of people who had sniffles and coughs—and one afternoon she called me and said she’d been sent home with a fever and didn’t feel well. My temperature was fine, but when I got home from work I felt like I needed to lie down, which was unusual for me. I woke up an hour and a half later with chills, whole body shaking and a temperature of 101.8. I said, “I think I have COVID.”

Our practice had started thinking about COVID and its potential impact—on the world, America, New York, our patients—when we started reading in early January about a novel infection coming out of China. We developed a “cough, cold and fever clinic,” where you isolate patients and go through the protocols of figuring out, “Could this be COVID? What tests do we need, what imaging, what labs, what swabs?” If you look at the timing of the pandemic, many practitioners around the world got sick at the beginning, as I did. But while we were preparing for COVID in the office, I could have caught the virus on the crosstown bus.

Those first few days were misery. I’ve had the flu twice, and I remember feeling like I wanted to die, but this had more intensity, a sense of being incredibly unwell. All I could do was lie on the couch. I couldn’t eat; I wasn’t thirsty, but I forced myself to drink. Getting up and walking to the bathroom took all my energy. I could hardly sleep, and when I did I had terrible nightmares; my brain felt like it was vibrating. Everything hurt. Whatever inflammatory processes were going on inside my lungs were going on in every tissue in my body. Every joint was inflamed. I felt 150 years old. I clearly had pneumonia, and I could feel my chest aching and rattling.

Every time we physicians get sick, we take it both personally and clinically. I’d roll over on my side and say, “My hip hurts, I must have bursitis; that’s the cytokines being released, and it’s causing inflammation and now I’m lying on it—ouch!” Or I’d say, “I’ve seen the data on the risk of kidney disease and COVID, so I need to drink more water.” Since I wasn’t eating or drinking much, at first I didn’t notice that I’d lost my sense of smell. But one night after my fever broke, my daughter—who’s been living with us since her college campus closed—was making dinner, and she asked me to open a jar of garlic and I said, “I think it’s gone bad, it doesn’t smell.” And she said, “I can smell it from across the room.” That was something I’d never experienced before. Even to this day, food doesn’t have a lot of taste.

I got tested about a week after I got sick, and when it came back positive, it was a relief. If I’d gone through that and then I was going to maybe get COVID, I was not going to be happy. I’m hoping this is going to be my only time getting it; fingers crossed, the immunity is there. My wife had a milder version, and she bounced back quicker. We’d been taking precautions to protect our daughter, like wearing masks and cleaning surfaces and using separate towels, but one day she came out of her bedroom and said she had a sore throat, congestion, a cough and a slight fever. Twenty-four hours later she was fine, so we’re hoping that was the healthy 21-year-old version of COVID-19.

After about 10 days I thought I was ready to go back to work, and my wife suggested we go for a walk to see how I’d do. We walked around the block and it was exhausting; it took everything out of me and my oxygen was dropping. We now see this in a lot of COVID patients—they have this second-week dip where they seem to be doing OK and then things change. I took a couple more days at home to rest, then returned to work the following Monday after being cleared by our Workforce Health and Safety office.

I know I was lucky. I have colleagues and friends who had horrible, high fevers for weeks; I had three days of fever, then a little low grade and then gone. The city has lost healthcare workers and others have been intubated and hospitalized for weeks. I escaped fairly unscathed; I haven’t been able to exercise and I still get out of breath, but to the best of my knowledge I’m not much the worse for wear. Going through this has likely affected me on levels I haven’t been able to process; I’m sure it will rise up in different ways. I’ve thrown myself into my work. What we’re dealing with in the outpatient world is an order of magnitude less than our inpatient colleagues—but we still see our patients and even our staff’s loved ones suffering mightily and sometimes dying. Hospital staff—every member of the team, from the people who greet you at the door to the ones caring for patients at the bedside in the ICU—are doing everything they can.

My experience with COVID, both as a physician and a patient, has made me want to become more engaged in fixing the healthcare system in this country. It has made me think about the system as a whole—how it works and doesn’t work; how we need to correct the inequities, improve access, and build a base of primary care; how if we really had a system that took good care of everybody, we might be better able to weather this kind of thing the next time it happens. I hope this crisis brings us together as a society. It’s something we shouldn’t politicize. We should ask, “What lessons can we learn? How can we be better?” But I think a great country will rise to that challenge.

I hope every single day I practice medicine makes me a better doctor, but I do think that sharing the experience of illness informs you as a clinician and offers the opportunity to renew your vigor for this work. Suffering through it—and, even more, seeing the suffering of our community, our healthcare providers, the frontline workers, and all the people who’ve lost their jobs—makes me want to be a better doctor. But every patient I see does that, or I’m in the wrong business.

Some people have been surprised that I’m so willing to be public about my COVID diagnosis, but I’m happy to help this be seen as something serious and real. I hear people in some parts of the country still saying, “It’s just the flu; we don’t need to wear masks or stop working.” I recognize that in some places that have had fewer cases, this pandemic may still seem far away. But these things are far away until they’re suddenly on your doorstep—and I’m willing to shout that from the rooftops.

-As told to Beth Saulnier

 This story first appeared in Weill Cornell Medicine, Summer 2020

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