Alumni Life: Andy Choi ’99
Andy Choi ’99, an academic cardiologist, is an associate professor of medicine and radiology and the director of cardiac CT and MRI at the George Washington University Hospital. Although he serves a variety of roles at the hospital, his primary task is fighting heart disease with the use of new diagnostic tools and imaging. He recently led the creation of set national guidance for other cardiologists across the United States on best practices in imaging and the pandemic.
As the COVID-19 pandemic became a threat in January and February, his hospital launched into preparation. With its central location and proximity to the White House, the George Washington University Hospital is always in a state of readiness, but as the number of cases peaked in the D.C. area, “it completely upended how we delivered care” Choi says. Although normally the hospital cares for a wide spectrum of issues, about 70 percent of the facility’s patients were Coronavirus cases at the D.C. area’s peak. Choi, like many medical professionals around the country, was reassigned to help fight the pandemic. The novel virus required new approaches as healthcare workers battled a disease they knew little about.
Choi notes that the rates of heart attacks have gone down since the pandemic hit. “The number of heart attacks went down 40 percent across the United States under the midst of the pandemic. It was something we also observed at GWU Hospital.” While it was initially believed that lower stress levels and perhaps lower pollution levels due to shelter in place orders caused this change, it may be due to the fact that people are refraining from hospital visits due a fear of exposure to COVID-19. “What we know is that heart related deaths went up 15 percent compared to a year ago,” Choi notes. “When we think about the more than 100,000 people who have died because of the pandemic, there are tens of thousands of people who might not be counted in those statistics. And these are not numbers; these are individual people with lives, and with families. It breaks my heart to know how deep this pandemic has been and will continue to be for patients with heart disease as well as for people with other various medical conditions.”
As a cardiologist, Choi has seen patients come in with effects that are often observed after one has had a heart attack. “What we would see is that there were many people that had the late effects of a heart attack. A heart attack is when one develops a sudden blockage in the blood supply that supplies the heart muscle and causes irreversible scarring of the heart. The heart loses its ability to pump properly,” he explains. “We saw a lot of people with the complications of heart disease that we had really eradicated in the last three decades start to creep up because they were fearful to come and get medical care.” The good news, however, is that with the decline in COVID-19 cases, cardiologists like Choi have again begun to focus on prevention and heart healthy habits with diet and exercise.
Most importantly, Choi points out the importance of mental health and how the pandemic has affected so many around the world. He notes on the significance of community: “The idea of the gathered community is so important. At Mercersburg, for example, we have the Chapel gatherings each week. That ability to gather has really shattered, because of the pandemic. That’s been the case for all of us.
“It’s been really hard to be in the hospital. I credit many of my colleagues for being there every angle day. I witness a lot of loneliness. We limited the number of visitors, and many patients had to suffer from the effects of coronavirus alone.”
Along with so many hospitals in the United States, the George Washington University Hospital sought to find moments of joy amid the crisis. Choi explains how it was crucial “to bring comfort to those patients in a way that would allow them to overcome their illness.” When a COVID-19 patient was discharged, “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles would play through the halls. “Everytime that song was played it was a reminder to all of us that another patient had been saved from the coronavirus.”