SoCal Pulmonologist Anoop Maheshwari's Fight to Recover from Covid-19 a 'Humbling Experience'

By India West

April 22, 2020

Two weeks ago, Indian American pulmonologist Anoop Maheshwari bid his despairing family goodbye. He was at the hospital – this time as a patient – and it didn’t seem likely he was going to come back home.

As the full fury of the coronavirus continues to be felt in hospitals across the country, scenes like this one, involving health care workers, are being played out with unfortunate regularity.

In the case of Maheshwari, the intervention of doctors, readiness to try new medication and, in all probability, a personal determination to fight off Covid-19 brought him back from the brink and home on April 20, after weeks of physical suffering and emotional turmoil.

Maheshwari, who works at Parkview Community Hospital in Riverside and Kindred Hospital of Riverside, had been assisting Covid-19 afflicted patients who had been coming into the ICU since early this year. He told India-West that he might have contracted the virus from an active, healthy 35-year-old who came in with a cough and congestion. The patient within 12 hours had to be moved to the ICU and put on a respirator, he said, adding, “Let’s not think it’s the aged alone. Even the young and healthy are getting sick.”

Maheshwari says he did have safety equipment on. But against a stealth virus which hasn’t revealed its whole nature yet, it’s only a guessing game on what constitutes “full” protection. He is also 59 and close to the study that shows nearly one in three licensed doctors in the U.S. are older than 60, an age group that is particularly vulnerable.

The doctor remembers it being a regular 12-14 hour workday but that afternoon, feeling tired, he went to the backroom and, as his staff can attest, unusually for him he took a nap. He did not think much of it and went about his work. Over the next two days he continued to feel more and more fatigued, and alarm bells went off when he lost his complete appetite and was sleeping 18 to 20 hours.

“As healthcare workers, you tend to be in denial,” he tells India-West with a rueful laugh. His family drove him to Parkview. He was so weak he couldn’t walk in. With his blood pressure very low and the CT scan showing ground glass opacity, the signs were all there and it seemed grim.

His family rallied. Frantic and desperate behind the scenes, his 80-year-old parents, wife Meenu, realtor son Deepak, and sister Seema, led by his medical school student daughter Somiya, who knew the reality of what was going on more than all of them, began to search for alternatives to rescue Maheshwari.

Learning about clinical trials that were going on for the anti-viral drug Remdesivir at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, and willing to try it, he was dropped off, plugged to oxygen, by his daughter to the ICU there.

“The worst part of this is the loneliness,” Maheshwari said. His family had already not been able to visit him and now the comfort of colleagues at Parkview was gone too. But the network of Indian American physicians was not to be dismissed easily. Dr. Adarsh Sharma, a critical care specialist at Hoag, was a friend and was taking the lead in his treatment along with Dr. Lalita Pandit, Dr. Robinson and Dr. Fee.

Maheshwari struggled in the ICU with an indescribable weakness and was so short of breath he had to be given 75% oxygen. He describes his thoughts in a professional “doctor’s voice” but stumbles. “I knew the family was going to be okay financially, but I kept coming back to how they would regroup with me gone. My son has a new real estate project, my daughter is still in school…” Maheshwari pauses. Meanwhile, his devastated family just prayed.

Then in short phrases, he describes how, struggling with breathing, he felt it would be just easier to go. He remembers the moment he looked into Sharma’s eyes, which were also filled with tears, but the attending doctor spoke words that reverberated and encouraged. “You cannot give up on me. You have to fight,” were the words he heard.

As a medical professional Maheshwari is hesitant to talk about the role personal will to fight plays, but he did tell India-West, “The emotional make-up matters. The support and prayers of friends and family matters. It is all a very humbling experience.”

Slowly, with the drug showing promise, he began to get better. Even his appetite returned. Instead of, “Damn, it’s meal time, I began to look forward to knowing what was on the menu.” And again, the Indian American physician network came into play. A doctor at the hospital even began bringing in home cooked food.

Finally, the day arrived when his son was able to pick him up from the hospital and take him home. “The family was ecstatic waiting with flowers and messages at the gate,” he recounted to India-West.

But an indelible image remains of his Covid-19 experience: that of his octogenarian mother, who, being in the most vulnerable demographic and wearing a mask, sat inside her car with tears streaming down her face as she blessed him from there and then drove off to her home.

Still weak and tired but spirited, Maheshwari hopes to get back to work shortly. His parting message is about the doctors: “From the outside we see large cars and homes but doctors make sacrifices. Many of us work seven days a week. For the most part the comfort we can give is very rewarding but with this virus, the health care worker holding your hand becomes family.”

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