The memory of the patient in her fifties still haunts Dr. Cameron Kyle-Sidell. She was one of the first with Covid-19 he treated at an emergency Covid-19 ICU he established at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn on March 23, just as coronavirus cases began to overrun the city. Her blood oxygen level had dropped into the 80s despite receiving high levels of oxygen support. This was concerning and indicative of hypoxia — a healthy oxygen level is in the mid-90s.
The hospital’s protocols called for placing her on a ventilator except she didn’t seem ill enough to warrant it. She should have been gasping for breath and possibly comatose, yet she was fully cognizant, talking to Kyle-Sidell and other caregivers, with no complaints of shortness of breath. Kyle-Sidell wondered if Covid-19 was somehow causing a false blood oxygen reading, but additional tests revealed the reading was accurate. Doctors would soon start calling patients like this — who they had never seen so frequently before — “happy hypoxics.”
When Kyle-Sidell told the patient that they wanted to place her on a ventilator she was terrified. “Is this going to save my life?” she asked.
He didn’t know what to say.
The 39-year-old ICU- and ER-trained doctor was beginning to have serious doubts about the manner in which caregivers were intubating people with Covid-19. Reports he’d seen from Italy were indicating as many as 80% of people placed on ventilators had died. Ventilators at his hospital didn’t seem to help his patients as much as he expected. Often, people would get worse after being placed on the machines.
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“As a physician, you know that bad things might happen to people and you may make the wrong decisions,” Kyle-Sidell says. “You take the 60% chance and it…