Idaho ER Doctor Infected By COVID-19: 'I'm Through the Darkest Days'

Mar 26, 2020

Dr. Brent Russell
Credit Courtesy St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center

Normally, Dr. Brent Russell would be joining his fellow emergency room physicians at St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center in Ketchum in their frontline battle against COVID-19 -  but these times are anything but normal. In fact, Russell himself was struck by the coronavirus which has swept the globe, claiming tens of thousands of lives.

“I’m definitely through the darkest days of my illness,” said Russell. “I know I’m going to survive this, but in the middle of the illness, I didn’t really know that.”

Morning Edition host George Prentice spoke with Dr. Russell about how he might have contracted the disease, his recovery and how his St. Luke’s colleagues continue to battle COVID-19.

“Any person can have it, not just a person who is coughing loudly or has obvious symptoms. That’s what happened to us. The illness came in silently and infected a lot of people.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio news. Good morning, I'm George Prentice. We have the opportunity this morning to talk with an emergency room doctor now. In fact, he works the ER at St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center. And indeed Ketchum is the epicenter of Blaine County, where today many of Idaho's lab confirmed cases of Coronavirus have been reported. But what brings greater urgency to our conversation is the fact that Dr. Brent Russell is himself a victim of COVID-19. He is recovering from the Coronavirus and we're fortunate that he can spend a few minutes with us this morning via Skype. Dr. Russell, good morning.

DR. BRENT RUSSELL: Good morning.

PRENTICE: First off, I have to ask, how are you and where are you time-wise in your recovery?

RUSSELL: I have had the illness about 14 days and I'm definitely through the darkest days of my illness, which were about a week ago. Now, I have a cough and a lot of fatigue, but I'm definitely on the road to recovery.

PRENTICE: Well, the question I'm certain that most people want answered is, how do you think you got it?

RUSSELL: It's impossible to know, but I suspect I got it either from an asymptomatic patient, because we know now up to about 50% of people with COVID don't have symptoms, so it could have been someone with a knee injury from skiing or something like that. Now, because we have such a high incidence of Coronavirus in the Wood River Valley, the emergency professionals in the ER are wearing protective gear with every single patient. But when I contracted this, probably three weeks ago, we weren't doing that because there were no documented cases at that point.

It's also equally possible I got it snow skiing. Because I think on the surface it seems like something that is not a high risk because it's outdoors, but I think it is actually a really high risk activity for viral transmission because of riding on the chair lift, shoulder to shoulder with people when you turn and talk to them. We have a gondola that's six people in the gondola facing each other. And then also the ski lodges where people have lunch are high risk. So, either of those are certainly possible.

PRENTICE: What was the worst of it? What were your symptoms at your worst point?

RUSSELL: So, I had a few very miserable days where I had high fevers, shaking chills. I soaked the bed with sweat and I had a couple of nights where I felt short of breath and that was really unnerving, to be laying in bed and not able to catch my breath.

PRENTICE: Well, other health care workers have been struck by COVID-19, can you speak to how it affects your hospital's ability to care for your community?

RUSSELL: Well fortunately, we're part of the St. Luke's system and so St. Luke's is sending us nurses and doctors from elsewhere, from either Boise or Twin Falls. But, if we were an isolated rural hospital, we would be crippled right now, because we have so many people who are out with the illness. And I think that's one thing to tell the listeners is that, any person can have it. It's not someone who's coughing loudly or has obvious symptoms. And so I think that's what happened to us, is that the illness came in silently and infected a lot of people.

PRENTICE: And we have to assume that we haven't hit the peak of confirmed cases of hospitalization. Yes?

RUSSELL: Yeah, I think we're weeks away from that. I think that the rate in Blaine County is very high, probably as high as anywhere in the United States, is my guess. But we know that it takes about 17 days after symptoms start before you start seeing people needing to be admitted to the ICU or having fatalities. And it's really probably about three weeks from the time people contract it. And I think that we didn't start really socially isolating until about a week and a half ago.

PRENTICE: Tell me if this is none of my business, but I'm concerned about well, when you're not thinking about your physical ailments, what else you might be thinking about. Maybe on a sleepless night, do you start thinking about things like, well your family, and your will, and that all the things a young active person shouldn't have to think about.

RUSSELL: Yes, for sure. My son, a teenager, probably contracted it from me. We're awaiting his results, but he had an illness that was consistent with COVID-19. And even a bigger worry is my parents. My nephew stayed with me when I first contracted the illness and didn't realize I had it and then he's been to see my parents in Boise and they're older. So that's the real concern. The young people, while it's not a harmless disease for young people, it's much worse for older people and there's where my concerns lie. I feel somewhat fortunate actually, to have had the disease already early on in this pandemic because now I have immunity and I know now that I'm going to survive this, but in the middle of the illness, I didn't really know that.

PRENTICE: I want to read something that you wrote that was published in the Idaho Mountain Express. "This will not be easy. It will likely be the greatest challenge of our lifetime. This is our moment."

RUSSELL: Yeah, that's true. In my lifetime, there's never been a challenge like this. A public health challenge or any type of a challenge to the world of this magnitude. And one thing about this illness, as opposed to say 9/11, where the average person could do nothing to affect that battle. But in this situation, what you do as an individual, both affects you and your family, as well as people down the road. People that you don't know that would end up getting sick because you got sick. People will die. The higher the rate of infection is in the population, the higher the rate of death is going to be.

PRENTICE: Well, lest I buried the lead here, you are surviving.

RUSSELL: Yes.

PRENTICE: He is Dr. Brent Russell, emergency room physician at St. Luke's Wood River. But this morning he is recovering from COVID-19. Dr. Russell, thank you so much. All the best to you and your family. Thank you.

RUSSELL: Thank you.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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