Alumnus on Pandemic’s Front Lines: Stay Apart, But Reach Out

A Brunswick alumnus treating COVID-19 patients in New York City told Upper Schools students that by far the best way to help those on the front lines of the crisis is to just stay home.
“Even though social distancing is annoying and boring, it’s definitely the most important thing that’s happening,” said Peter Spyrou ’06, M.D. “That’s really, dramatically, helping. Social distancing is the best thing people are doing.”

Spyrou is a second-year resident in psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. At the end of March, he was switched to the hospital’s COVID-19 Medicine Units, and has been working with these patients ever since.

On May 5, Spyrou Zoomed with Upper School students in Brunswick’s Advanced Medical Anatomy & Physiology class, describing difficult days witnessing lonely patients struggle to breathe, explaining the trauma that both patients and staff are facing, and offering a first-person account of treatment protocols as well as thoughts on how the crisis is affecting medicine more broadly.

Advanced Medical Anatomy & Physiology, taught by Derek Hruska, is an elective for students interested in pre-med science and draws mostly seniors, as well as a few juniors.

Asked by a student how to help those on the frontlines, Spyrou cited the strength of social distancing.

He said his hospital admitted around 400 patients on April 8, but with social distancing, those numbers were down dramatically by May 4.

“Yesterday, it was less than 70,” Spyrou told the class. “The only reason that has come down is social distancing.”

Spyrou, trained in the medicine of psychiatry and psychology, advised that another way to help is by reaching out to one another.
The illness, he said, is emotionally wrenching for families who can’t be together, and extraordinarily lonely for patients who are often up all night struggling to breathe, alone, sometimes for “days or weeks at a time.”

“It’s a very lonely experience to be a patient,” he said, adding: “I think the most important thing is to check in with people.”

Spyrou told students it took some time before he figured out he wanted to be a doctor.

A Brunswick boy since kindergarten, he said he first fell in love with science in fifth grade with Ms. Reid, but it wasn’t until his very last month at Middlebury College that he decided to pursue medicine.

A post-baccalaureate pre-med program at the University of Virginia followed, then New York Medical College, where he seriously considered pediatrics before falling firmly for psychiatry and matching at Montefiore.

Another student asked Spyrou if he found it difficult to return to general medicine after settling on a specialty. The answer is yes.

Psychiatry, he said, allows for conversations with patients and families, luxuries the current crisis rules out. Visits with patients while dressed in full PPE are strenuous and short.

“It’s boiling hot,” he said. “You want to spend as little time as possible in the room [to minimize the possible spread of infection]. There are no families. It’s a very different feeling.”

“Every specialist has become a COVID-19 doctor,” he added, “because there has been such an increase in patients.”

With his training in psychiatry as a backdrop, Spyrou responded to a spectrum of excellent questions from students.

He described difficult days witnessing patients struggle to breathe, personal anxiety around getting the virus, difficult and terribly rushed conversations with patients and family members about their wishes, unease around changes at the hospital, not to mention the very physical work of trying to save the lives of patients who are “crashing.”

“So many more patients are dying,” he said. “It’s very traumatic for the staff.”

“It’s not like what you see in the movies,” he said. “It’s all very rattling.”

Another student asked if Spyrou has treated children.

“Luckily, very, very few have been hospitalized,” Spyrou said.

He said his youngest patient was 46, but most of his patients have been aged 70 and up. Spyrou said people are surviving the virus, even very old people.

“It’s amazing to see patients in their late 80s, people born in the 1930s, who went through World War II, and they are getting through COVID and surviving.

“They are getting through it.”


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