An Amazing Comeback From COVID: Dr. Tomoaki Kato’s Story
After nearly dying from COVID-19 last year, the world-renowned transplant surgeon reflects on his recovery and completing his eighth New York City Marathon.
For years, Dr. Tomoaki Kato’s colleagues have marveled at his endurance — both in the operating room, where he regularly performs 10-hour surgeries, and outside, as an avid runner who has completed seven New York City Marathons.
But completing his eighth New York City Marathon on November 7 was about much more than his finishing time. Twenty months ago, Dr. Kato, the chief of the Division of Abdominal Organ Transplantation at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, was facing multiorgan failure as he battled COVID-19.
On this brisk fall day, as he stood in New York City’s Central Park, he soaked in another moment in his remarkable journey to recovery. Looking down at his newest medal, he reflected, “This is special, because I may not have been here. … I’m just so happy I was able to finish.”
“I Felt I Died”
In mid-March 2020, Dr. Kato began to experience severe pain in his back. The pandemic was starting to overwhelm the city, but “I was in a denial to be honest,” he remembers about the possibility that he might have contracted COVID-19. At the insistence of a colleague, he went to the hospital to get tested for COVID-19. The test came back positive.
Dr. Kato stayed home and monitored his oxygen levels. One day when he found himself struggling to breathe, he knew he had to go to the emergency department at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center.
“When we first laid our eyes on him, it was shocking because he looked much sicker than what we anticipated,” says Dr. Marcus Pereira, medical director of the Transplant Infectious Diseases Program at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia. “He was breathing very fast. He looked exhausted.”
Within 24 hours, Dr. Kato’s condition had worsened and his care team decided that he needed to be put on a ventilator to help him breath. While sedated, Dr. Kato says he had very vivid dreams and at one point, “I saw a white light. The white light came from far away and then suddenly surrounded me. I remember I felt I died,” he says.
“He does these marathon surgeries that nobody else can do. His endurance, his dedication to his patients — this is what he’s well known for.”
— Dr. Mercedes Martinez
A Long Road
After a harrowing few weeks in which Dr. Kato battled multiple infections and had to be put on ECMO, an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machine that pumps blood and oxygen through the body, his condition began to improve.
“We all felt a huge sense of relief when things started to improve,” notes Paula Peeler Bryan, one of the nurse practitioners who cared for Dr. Kato while he was in the medical ICU.
Peeler Bryan was caring for Dr. Kato the night his condition took a dramatic turn for the worse, and it became clear that he would need to be placed on ECMO to give him the best chance of surviving. “He was going into multisystem organ failure. We knew we had to act fast,” she says, recalling how she and fellow nurse practitioner Kaitlinn Goode alerted the care team that Dr. Kato was deteriorating.
Under the care of his colleagues and friends, Dr. Kato pulled through and began to build back his strength. Two months after being admitted to the hospital, he was discharged to the cheers of hundreds of people.
He then astonished those same colleagues when he came back to work in August 2020 and started performing surgeries again. Not long after, he began running, with the goal of entering the 2021 New York City Marathon.
“For me, it is almost a miracle that I was able to come back to do surgery at a regular pace,” he says. “But the marathon was something I was able to do before COVID, so I really felt like if I can do this, then I can sort of put some closure on this COVID story.”
Celebration at the Finish Line
At the 2021 New York City Marathon, Dr. Kato said he started a little too fast, which slowed him down at the end, but he still crossed the finish line in 5:38.52. Dr. Kato exhibited perseverance and endurance with his run, but the moment was also a tribute to everyone who rooted for him along the way.
“For me to be able to do this, I really feel like I’m back to what I was before,” says Dr. Kato. “I didn’t get defeated by COVID. I’m so grateful that I was able to come back and so thankful to my colleagues who helped me along the way.”
“He does these marathon surgeries that nobody else can do. His endurance, his dedication to his patients — this is what he’s well known for,” says Dr. Mercedes Martinez, medical director of the Intestinal Transplant Program at the Center for Liver Disease and Transplantation at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “Even though he was sick, he didn’t lose any of it. And now completing this marathon — it is really incredible. He is really extraordinary.”
This year’s marathon marked not only Dr. Kato’s comeback, but that of New York City as it recovers from the devastation of the pandemic. As a patient, Dr. Kato missed many of the 7 p.m. salutes to the healthcare workers at the height of the pandemic, but he was able to enjoy the cheers as he crossed the finish line. “It was the 50th anniversary of the marathon and a celebration of New York City coming back from pandemic,” says Dr. Kato. “It’s wonderful to celebrate together.”