Jim Bello doesn’t remember arriving at Massachusetts General Hospital early on the morning of March 14, 2020. He doesn’t remember becoming the first COVID-19 patient admitted to the Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU), or the 32 days he spent on a ventilator fighting for his life. For Bello — a 49-year-old husband and father of three from Hingham, Massachusetts — the five weeks that elapsed between his admission and his discharge are a blank, the result of his spending most of that time in a medically induced coma. But for the members of Mass General’s MICU team, caring for Bello was an experience they’ll never forget.
KERRI VOELKEL, RN (15-year MICU veteran): Jim arrived just before shift change. He hadn’t been confirmed to have COVID-19 yet, but I knew, looking at his chart what the result was going to be. All his markers were consistent with what we’d been hearing out of New York and Italy.
FOUAD “FRED” TARAZI, RN (9-year MICU veteran): He was intubated and sedated but seemed fit and healthy otherwise. We get a lot of patients with respiratory failure — and they don’t usually look like that.
PAUL CURRIER, MD (pulmonologist and critical care physician): We didn’t fully know yet how transmissible it was, so there was a lot of anxiety. I remember looking at one of my residents as we were about to enter the room for the first time and seeing his hands tremble. We didn’t find out Jim was positive until a few days later — that was when I started quarantining in my basement to protect my family.
X-rays revealed that Jim’s lungs were inflamed and filled with fluid. Dr. Currier and the team started Jim on a series of medications, including statins and antiviral medications.
MS. VOELKEL: Typically, the family would be at the bedside telling us stories about the patient — that’s how we bond with our patients. But because of COVID-19 regulations, they couldn’t. Instead, we started calling Kim (Jim’s wife) to give her daily updates. She was experiencing her own trauma of not being able to visit, and she needed to talk. FaceTime let me show her what was going on. We set up a time for her and their kids to call every night and talk to him.
MR. TARAZI: As a father myself, it was tough hearing his kids talk to him on those calls — the impact this was having on his family and how much they loved him.
MS. VOELKEL: We filled out a poster that we hung on his wall that listed his favorite food, music, movies — and we hung up pictures from the family of Jim doing the things he loved, like skiing and sailing. Seeing what a patient looks like when they are healthy is a big thing for us. Because when people are on ventilators, they don’t look like themselves. Usually, it was just me and him, so I would constantly be talking. Kim told me they dreamed about going on a safari together for his 50th birthday, which was coming up — and I’d talk to Jim about that. I truly believe he could hear me.
The care team used every therapy and method at their disposal — including an artificial heart-lung machine, known as an ECMO — but they struggled to halt Jim’s decline.
EMMY RUBIN, MD (pulmonologist and critical care physician): He was incredibly sick, and he was getting the maximum amount of support. The ECMO machine was doing virtually all the work for his lungs. And there was a significant possibility he would get worse.
MR. TARAZI: When the ECMO team was discussing options, I spoke up and asked, do we need to get Kim in here? I thought having her there might be the last thing we could do for him.
Dr. Rubin secured permission for Kim to visit the following night.
DR. RUBIN: I stood with Kim by the bed and explained what she was seeing. With COVID, you’re in these masks and these face shields, and it can be hard to connect with someone personally through all that equipment. But I tried to reassure her that we were doing everything we could to give him the best chance possible.
The visit marked a turning point. Within days, Jim’s condition began to improve, and he was removed from ECMO.
MS. VOELKEL: I remember the first time he sat on the edge of the bed with his breathing tube still in. I called Kim to tell her, but I could barely hold it together. I was so emotional because in that moment I knew he could get better.
Over the following days, Jim continued to improve and on April 17th he was released to start his rehab at Spaulding Rehabilitation Network.
DR. RUBIN: The patients in the MICU often face long odds. That is especially true with COVID-19. Jim and others like him who defied the odds of this disease kept us going through those initial days and weeks.
DR. CURRIER: From the resident doctors, to the nurses and respiratory therapists, to the guys in the lab working around the clock — you could sense this overwhelming desire to rise to the occasion and help patients like Jim.
MS. VOELKEL: He was our first COVID-19 patient, and by the time he left, we had seen too many to count. We became attached to all of them, but Jim was proof we could see this through. He showed that there’s more to patient recovery than medicine. He was a symbol of hope.
Seven months after being discharged from Mass General, Jim, who celebrated his 50th birthday in November, has made a full recovery.
JIM BELLO: I remember almost nothing, but there is this one moment right at the end. As I was getting wheeled out the door, one nurse asked if she could give me a hug. In the midst of everything that was going on, that sticks out. For that person to care about me that much, it says everything. Still to this day, I don’t know her name. But that’s my memory of Mass General.
KIM BELLO: I know every morning I wake and he’s next to me is going to be a good day — and I have Mass General to thank for that.