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Woodward Alum Fights on Pandemic Frontlines

 

When the COVID-19 virus struck New York in February, Dr. Richard Marks quickly knew it would pose a major threat to the region.

Marks ’04 is an attending anesthesiologist at NYU Langone Health in Manhattan. He’d been following news of the virus as it spread from Wuhan, China, to Italy, and then it arrived in the United States in late January.

“New York is such a dense and popular area that it was going to come sooner or later,” Marks said. “We were making sure we had proper equipment and screening patients properly.

“Once it hit New Rochelle, and then started to spread into New York City and Manhattan, we knew we were going to have to step-up our precautions.”

The hospital began to transform itself based on guidelines from city, state, and federal agencies and health experts. They stopped elective surgeries and converted inpatient hospital floors into intensive care units and made plans to conserve protective gear while doing as much as possible to keep workers safe.

“As health care providers, we want to take the proper precautions in terms of [personal protective equipment],” Marks said. “But we knew our job was to take care of very sick patients. Once we got to the hospital, we had a job to do.”

Marks and his wife live in Greenwich Village, and he’s been walking to work through the city’s eerily quiet streets as shelter-in-place rules took effect in March.

Much of Marks’ work lies in tending to patients during operations, administering anesthesia, and overseeing intubations. As patients began flooding hospitals with COVID symptoms, his work shifted from the operating room to ICUs, intubating patients and, when necessary, placing them in medically induced comas. He began working 12-hour shifts, 7 to 7, alternating between days and nights.

It was an extreme and unprecedented response, but they are facing an unprecedented illness, Marks said.

“These patients are very, very sick,” he said. “We’re seeing some positive results. Some people are getting off the ventilator. Some are expiring, and it’s very difficult to tell exact numbers. No one is an expert in this disease.”

Nationally, there have been nearly 1.3 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 76,000 deaths. New York has accounted for more than 337,000 cases and 26,300 deaths.

Doctors at Langone have studied COVID literature from China and Italy, but they’ve also been doing their own studies on symptoms and treatment. Every day, Marks said, they learn something new.

“It’s very challenging,” he said. “We have faced previous pandemics, but this is a brand new disease. We typically know how diseases start, the middle of the course, and how they’re going to end. We aren’t sure whether treatments will be developed. We don’t know how this is going to turn out.”

Though it had been a deeply challenging period, Marks remained hopeful. He said treatment methods had been working, but above all, social distancing and sheltering in place had led to a decrease in hospital admissions. 

He recommended that everyone pay close attention to what health experts say about the disease, and to maintain social distancing and to keep up good hand hygiene practice. “It really does work,” Marks said. He cautioned that relaxing now could lead to another sudden spread of the virus.

As for him personally, Marks said the experience is taking a toll. Patients have serious respiratory issues and complex secondary issues. Many of them, unfortunately, never make it out of the ICU. He’s busier than he’s ever been, dealing with more uncertainty than ever before. And while he hasn’t experienced any COVID symptoms, some of his coworkers have had mild cases. Still, he remains undaunted.

“The reason we became physicians is we want to help people,” Marks said. “We take pride in the hard work and time it took to get to this point. We take pride in using our craft to care for people. We’re hopeful we will see more progress.”

Reflecting on his time at Woodward, Marks said it laid a solid foundation for his chosen career. 

“In addition to the academics, there was service and a focus on just being a well-rounded individual,” he said. “All those experiences helped mold me into the person I became.”

 

Amid the pandemic, Woodward students, staff, parents, and alumni are maintaining the school’s commitment to service, working as medical professionals and civic leaders, or helping those in need. We would love to highlight more of these stories. If you would like to share your story, please email us at eagleinfo@woodward.edu.

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