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Henry Ford doctor on ventilator beats COVID-19: 'I came as close to death as you can be'

dr. scott kaatz in hospital bed
Henry Ford Health System
Dr. Scott Kaatz, who took care of some of the first coronavirus patients in metro Detroit, went home on Sunday after a nearly one-month battle with a virus that was treated using experimental medical therapies.

Six days ago, Henry Ford Health doctor Scott Kaatz was on a ventilator, clinging to life.

The 62-year-old physician had COVID-19, a virus that had ravaged his lungs, but not his will.

Dr. Kaatz, who took care of some of the first coronavirus patients in metro Detroit, went home on Sunday after a nearly one-month battle with a virus that was treated using experimental medical therapies. Among them: convalescent plasma, the liquid part of blood that is collected from patients who have recovered from the infection.

Kaatz was Henry Ford's first patient to receive an infusion of convalescent plasma, though he stressed that he does not know with certainty what cured him, or if the plasma or any of the experimental drugs made a difference. All he knows, he said, was that he "came as close to death as you can be."

"I got really, really lucky," said Kaatz, who credits the Henry Ford medical staff with helping save his life. "As it got worse and worse — I know what that does with the risk of dying ... but I felt very secure. I was in a great institution."

Henry Ford Health SystemÕs first patient to receive an infusion of convalescent plasma was Dr. Scott Kaatz, a Henry Ford doctor who almost died from COVID-19 after caring from some of the first infected patients during the early days of the virusÕs discovery in metro Detroit.

Kaatz was also in familiar territory. He has been with Henry Ford for a total of 31 years and was on the front lines when the virus first surfaced in metro Detroit. He treated numerous infected patients and had been part of the scrambling to help as many people as possible. And he understood the risks that medical professionals faced in dealing with the contagion.

Only this time, he was in the hospital bed. And his colleagues were facing the risks.

"Every time someone came into my room,” he said, “they were risking their lives to save mine."

During his hospitalization, Kaatz was also treated with steroids, Remdesivir and hydroxychloroquine — the anti-malarial drug that the FDA warned last week carries serious heart risks and should only be used in a hospital setting.

As a physician and scientist, Kaatz said that he understood what he was up against. He knew he wasn’t getting better, and that the risk of dying went up for patients who wound up on ventilators. But fear of dying was never the issue, he said.

“I was worried about my family,” he said.

'You don't want this'

It was a Sunday, March 29, when Kaatz fell ill. He woke up with a slight fever and headache. Worried it could be COVID-19, he called work and said he wasn’t coming in as he feared potentially infecting patients and coworkers.

That week, his health deteriorated. Crushing body aches. Significant headache. The tell-tale cough. He made two trips to the Henry Ford Hospital emergency room in six days, but chest X-rays and his oxygenation looked okay, so he was sent home both times.

Then came the shortness of breath.

Kaatz called his primary doctor — also his medical partner — who lived a mile away and drove him to the hospital. He was admitted that time.

“When I got short of breath, it was time to go,” he recalled, stressing: “You don’t want this.”

Kaatz was hospitalized on April 4. His fatigue worsened and within 24 hours, would spiral downhill in ICU — leading to intubation and being placed on a ventilator on April 12.

"I knew that his condition was extreme and I was terrified that I was going to lose him," said his wife, Meg, a long-time nurse who was in Texas with her son at that time.

Meg Kaatz has medical conditions that put her at risk for contracting the virus. Her family decided early on, a couple of days after her husband treated his first COVID-19 patient, that she would go stay with her son in Texas to avoid getting infected should Dr. Kaatz become ill with the virus.

"It felt so wrong not to be able to be with him at his bedside when he was so terribly ill," said Meg Kaatz.

Meg and Scott Kaatz have been together since 1975. During those years, she remembers her husband being sick only a handful of times. So when she learned he had coronavirus, she was blindsided.

“It just really shocked me and knocked me off my feet,” she said.

So from Texas, she cared for him as best she could. She talked to his nurses and doctors daily and she Skyped her husband, who on the eve of his hospital admission mustered the strength to attend his wife’s birthday party — via Zoom.

“Apparently, I was not the life of the party that night,” he joked.

Saying goodbye

Up until he was placed on a ventilator, Kaatz remembers everything. How the huffing and puffing got worse. How he went from talking, to one-word answers, to nodding yes or no.

He got so weak in ICU, he recalled, that wiggling his toes exhausted him. He could wiggle one toe. But when he moved the other, he said, it wiped him out.

“The not breathing was a challenge,” he said. “I knew the disease was getting worse and worse, and I knew what that meant.”

As his health worsened, weighing heavily on the back of his mind was talking to his family.

“The important thing was to have a potential goodbye conversation with Meg and the kids,” Kaatz said.

On Easter Sunday, that conversation happened. The nurses held up his phone just before they put him on a ventilator so that he could facetime his wife, his son Christopher, a 32-year-old music professor and conductor, and his daughter, Beth Smith, 29, an advertising copy editor who still lives in the metro area.

From behind his mask, Kaatz tried to speak to his family, but he could barely breathe.

"That last conversation was difficult," his wife recalled. "We were trying to encourage him, 'You'll get through this. You just need or oxygen.' There were a lot of 'I love yous' and a lot of tears."

In those final moments before going on the ventilator, Kaatz said he felt no pain and had no fear.

“Worrying about you guys was at the top of my mind,” he would later tell his wife.

For his family, the ventilation process was brutal. Kaatz was flipped on his stomach for three days while sedated and on the ventilator. Doctors ran through the list of experimental treatments as his oxygen levels and conditioned worsened.

But Kaatz gutted it out.

On April 18, surprising his doctors and nurses, he woke up. His wife’s phone rang in Texas. It was the nurses calling with good news.

“They were stunned and I was stunned,” Meg recalled. “I got an unexpected call saying that he dramatically turned around.”

The tears started flowing.

"It had been a really rough week. I was crying. I was just so happy," she said.

The Kaatz family's fight with COVID-19 isn't over. Kaatz' father, Dick Kaatz, a funeral director from Michigan’s thumb region is now intubated and fighting for his life at Henry Ford Hospital. Kaatz isn't sure what treatments will work for his father.

According to Henry Ford Hospital, Kaatz’s father has not received convalescent plasma, which continues to be scarce and reserved for only the sickest patients.

Dr. Kaatz says he hopes to donate plasma so the option can be used for others.

“I will be donating in a couple of weeks; I’m already plugged in,” Kaatz said. “If you’ve had this disease, there are opportunities to help others who are desperately sick. We’ll track this and get some clues.”

Michigan Radio, Bridge Magazine, and the Detroit Free Press are teaming up to report on Michigan hospitals during the coronavirus pandemic. We will be sharing accounts of the challenges doctors, nurses and other hospital personnel face as they work to treat patients and save lives. If you work in a Michigan hospital, we would love to hear from you. You can contact Robin Erb rerb@bridgemi.com at Bridge, Kristen Jordan Shamus kshamus@freepress.com at the Free Press, or Kate Wells katwells@umich.edu at Michigan Radio.

Michigan Radio listeners, readers, and reporters are rising to the challenge every day. If you can, please support essential journalism during this crisis.

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