Alumni Life: Ross Weller ’03
In early March, Ross Weller ’03, a surgical resident from Stony Brook, New York, was asked to draw a straw in order to decide who from his team would be reassigned to an intensive care unit treating COVID-19 patients. Out of the seven people in his unit at Stony Brook University Hospital, he was one of the first three who would be moved to the front line of the pandemic. Throughout the next few months, Weller treated the sickest COVID-19 patients in one of the country’s worst hotspots.
At his hospital’s peak, Weller and his colleagues cared for about 120 intubated COVID patients. Eventually about 90 percent of the hospital’s surgical staff were reassigned to work in ICUs specifically for coronavirus cases. He compares his hospital and its staff to being a sort of “war effort.” “We were using our resources like we were under siege,” he explains. When Weller himself opened up a unit, he did not have a clerk to order supplies. “I went on missions and stole everything from other units that was needed to take care of people,” he says. “It's not normally the job of the doctor, but it was what was needed at that time.” Weller and his colleagues quickly trained interns—who are not usually put in the ICU so soon—how to care for the COVID cases. It was important to make sure that no specific unit of the hospital was overstressed and to protect the safety of medical workers as well.
Similar to other ICUs treating serious cases of the highly contagious coronavirus, Weller’s hospital did not allow family members to visit, even as their loved ones neared the end of life. The hardest part, Weller notes, was communicating with the patients’ loved ones through FaceTime, the best alternative the unit could offer to in-person visits. “It was basically them saying their goodbyes,” he says. Having to do this repeatedly, however, is what really took an emotional toll on Weller and his colleagues. “When you do that for one family member, they tell their siblings. So you have to hear an entire family say their goodbyes in sequence.” In addition, the doctors would explain to the families what would be expected as their loved ones passed away, which was mentally exhausting.
There were times, however, when Weller and his colleagues’ work really paid off. Early on, he had a patient with many risk factors: she was a smoker, she was older, she was obese, and she became a diabetic as she was staying in the hospital. “The lady was the first case that I met before she was intubated,” Weller says, “and she was the first person I got to talk to after she had recovered.” It was really rewarding for Weller because her case was one that probably would have ended much worse if it hadn’t been for the care he and his colleagues provided.
The habits Weller learned as a surgical resident, he explains, kept him safe. “You can’t touch your face in the operating room. You can’t be negligent with where you’re placing your hands in a surgery.” The cautions he uses on a regular basis helped him remain focused when he had to protect himself. “It's hard to function and stay that stressed out,” he says. “It becomes a matter of discipline, even when you’re tired. Sometimes you just want to eat,” he explains. “The process of making sure you can safely eat something is a challenge when you’re in an ICU.
“Sometimes you go home and you’re sure that you got yourself sick that day, but I managed to protect myself, despite all the times I was tired and not thinking.” Like so many medical-care workers who feared they were putting their loved ones at risk, Weller kept his distance and relied on FaceTime to keep his wife and two kids updated. “I sent my family away pretty early,” he says. Despite all of his time in the ICU and his exposure to the virus, Weller has taken two antibody tests and both have indicated that he never had COVID-19.
Weller attributes some of this discipline to his time at Mercersburg. “I credit a lot of that to being a part of the cross country and track teams,” he notes. It was helpful for him to have a structured part of the day to really work on achieving some goal. “I also always think about the White Coat and Blue Coat (where Mercersburg students serve food and clear tables during a family style meal).” He explains how humbling the tradition really is. “Sometimes you’re there to help people. Sometimes you’re forgoing your own comfort or your own entertainment and just going out and providing for people and trying to help them have a nice meal. It’s a simple thing, but it really does rub off on you when you apply those principles to your daily life. Right now it's my job to go serve these people. That’s something I still think about, thanks to Mercersburg.”