Dr. Tomoaki Kato Reflects on His Harrowing Battle with COVID-19: ‘I Survived Because of Everybody’s Hard Work’

One year after surviving COVID-19, the world-renowned transplant surgeon looks back at his near-death experience — and credits his colleagues with saving him.

After spending eight weeks fighting for his life, in the same hospital where he saves the lives of others, Dr. Tomoaki Kato, a world-renowned transplant surgeon who contracted COVID-19, was finally strong enough to go home on May 26, 2020.

“I survived because of everybody’s hard work,” Dr. Kato said, crediting his colleagues at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center with keeping him alive. Dr. Kato is chief of the Division of Abdominal Organ Transplantation at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center and professor of surgery at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Dr. Tomoaki Kato

Dr. Tomoaki Kato

In March 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in New York City, Dr. Kato, 56, experienced back pain and had fevers that fluctuated over a few days. He stayed home and monitored his oxygen levels which hovered around 93 to 94 percent.

“I was in a denial situation,” Dr. Kato recently told The New York Times as he reflected on his COVID-19 battle one year later. “I thought I was going to be fine.”

Then one morning in the shower Dr. Kato suddenly could not breathe, and he tested his oxygen again. When it registered below 90 percent, “that’s when I decided to check into the hospital,” he told The New York Times.

Within 24 hours Dr. Kato was on a ventilator. “From there, I have no consciousness for about four weeks.”

“I think I scared a lot of people,” Dr. Kato told Health Matters last year. “Thank God for the good judgment of all the doctors and the entire team who took care of me. I think I went through every unit [of the hospital]. I’m really glad I was here.”

“I survived because of everybody’s hard work.”

— Dr. Tomoaki Kato

“My colleagues were so supportive,” he added. A few even sat by his bedside all night.

They also rallied around his care, which included four weeks on a ventilator and one week on ECMO — an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machine which takes over the patient’s lung function — as well as dialysis treatment for his failing kidneys. After two months, nearly 200 colleagues cheered Dr. Kato as he was discharged from the hospital last May.

“It was so frightening when he got sick and, of course, he means so much to the entire Columbia and NewYork-Presbyterian family,” said Dr. Laureen Hill, group senior vice president and chief operating officer of NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia Division. “So it is just such a joyful, heartwarming day to see him recovered and on his way home.”

Dr. Hill continued: “It’s a testimony to the amazing physicians and nurses and the entire team that took care of him. … I know personally how hard this was for them knowing that Tom is one of us, and it felt like caring for a family member, someone you care deeply about. I could not be more proud or more grateful for our team.”

Dr. Craig R. Smith, surgeon-in-chief at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center and chair of the Department of Surgery at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, echoed those sentiments. “This is a very emotional event. This could not have happened to a better person and more capable surgeon. I feel honored to work with him, and I’m very honored to be here and to see him well, [able] to go home.”

“He’s been our Michael Jordan for [more than] 10 years and I can’t tell you how happy [a moment] it is to have him back,” said Dr. Jean Emond, director of the Center for Liver Disease and Transplantation in the Department of Surgery at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center and the Thomas S. Zimmer Professor of Reconstructive Surgery at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

After his discharge, Dr. Kato underwent extensive physical therapy and returned to the operating room in August 2020. Since then, he has performed 57 transplants and more than 80 surgeries as of the beginning of June 2021 — each time feeling a deeper connection to the patient beyond the operating room.

“I really never understood well enough how patients feel,” Dr. Kato told The New York Times.

Dr. Kato now not only advises on patients’ post-surgery recovery, but also has tips on the best dishes to order off the hospital menu. “I can be much more on their side, in their shoes, in their thinking,” Dr. Kato said. “‘I was there’ are very powerful words for patients.”

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