Health care heroes: frontline medicine

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Emergency medical resident David Burkard battled COVID-19 in November. Photo by Bryan Esler

Editor’s note: This is part nine of a nine-part series on health care employees working during the COVID-19 pandemic. To read more stories, click here.

It was mid-November when David Burkard, an emergency medical resident with Spectrum Health, woke up in his one-bedroom apartment with a fever and muscle aches. He’d been working in Grand Rapids since before the start of the pandemic — tending to patients reeling from the effects of the coronavirus for months. Things were catching up to him.

Burkard got tested and went home to wait it out. For about a week, he had a fever, cough, body aches — the normal, expected symptoms of a bad cold.

Then it got worse.

“Day seven or eight came around, and all of a sudden I could not breathe,” Burkard recalled. “I would walk from my bed to my kitchen, or my kitchen to the bathroom, and I would have to take a little break.”

That was when Burkard knew something was terribly wrong; just a few days later, he was in the hospital. His oxygen levels had dropped, and his heart rate had shot upward. He could barely take care of himself, he recalled, and spent three days in the hospital on a mix of treatments.

Once a strong runner, he said he hasn’t had many chances to stretch his legs since falling ill. But he did go skiing in January — two months after contracting the virus.

“And I was still so winded,” he said. “Just from downhill skiing.”

Burkard has been at the center of the pandemic outbreak in Kent County, watching the last year unfold from emergency rooms at both Blodgett and Butterworth hospitals. The worst came just as Burkard fell ill in November; according to a New York Times database, an average of nearly 700 Kent County residents tested positive each day at the pandemic’s peak.

But the pandemic began more quietly with patients slowly filtering into hospitals in early 2020. Burkard remembers not really having any sense of how bad things would get — the duration of the pandemic, the cost in human life or how it would fundamentally reorganize the country. But he quickly learned how to spot who was sick.

“It became very clear, very fast, what a really sick patient looked like because they came in breathing a little heavy. And then we’d hook them up to the monitor and their oxygen levels would just be remarkably low,” Burkard said. “I think the most shocking thing is just how out of breath they are. I’ve seen plenty of pneumonia in my life and plenty of viral illnesses, but I had never seen one that made people so breathless.”

That number is slowly sliding downward as vaccinations tick upward. The Times’ data also shows that more than one-fifth of all Michigan residents have received at least one vaccine dose as of this writing — a number that will surely have risen by the time you read this.

But the last year has been harrowing for doctors, who have been faced with the profound stresses of caring for dying patients in the midst of a global pandemic. Burkard, after he returned from sick leave, saw some of the worst of Kent County’s virus cases when he volunteered to work in an intensive care unit.

“They’re all intubated. They’re all laying on their bellies. They’re all paralyzed, and they’re all just kind of dwindling,” Burkard recalled. “That was super hard. Because you get done with your day of rounding, and then you call the families of every patient — because covered patients aren’t allowed to have any visitors. And you give updates every day, and every day, every family member is like, ‘Are we moving forward? Are we through the worst of it?’

“And you just have to answer the question with ‘I don’t know’ every time because it is such a weird disease that you don’t know,” Burkard continued.

“That look on their face when they’re gasping for air is so terrifying. They just have so much fear inside of them,” he said. “And, you know, we’re the last ones that get to talk to them. A lot of those patients never come off the ventilator.”

But despite the intense pressures of the past year, Burkard said that it’s taught him that he’s in the right place. “I love my job. I love emergency medicine,” Burkard said.

This story can be found in the May 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox each month, subscribe here

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