TCOM alum fought COVID-19 in a Long Island hospital emergency room as New York became epicenter of the outbreak
By Diane Smith
One night during the week leading up to Easter, the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine alum arrived to work and found that every emergency room was in use. Another night, three intubations were performed in the span of 45 minutes. He described a vicious illness that affected all organ systems and caused strokes, heart attacks and pulmonary embolisms.
“I certainly felt scared because I was seeing very sick patients, and some of them were in their early 40s,” Dr. O’Neill said. “People, who I wouldn’t expect to be that sick, would come in with severe viral pneumonia and hypoxia.”
Dr. O’Neill saved lives in the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak – about 40 miles from New York City. At that time, New York City was drawing national attention as thousands of people were infected with the virus.
In retrospect, Dr. O’Neill said there were signs weeks earlier that a health crisis was emerging. He said seriously ill patients were showing up in the emergency room.
“Even before we started testing for COVID-19, we did notice that there were some patients who were coming in very sick with pneumonia,” Dr. O’Neill told students and faculty during a recent webinar hosted by The University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth.
Dr. O’Neill was the first guest of HSC’s webinar, Alumni Conversations. About 40 people participated in the online event, which offered the HSC community an inside look at emergency medicine during a global pandemic. The discussion also touched on his passion for his work.
“I like being a doctor because I can have a positive impact on people’s lives every day,” Dr. O’Neill said after the webinar. “I love the science and art of medicine. I love being able to keep my mind active as there is always something new to learn every day.”
A passion for emergency medicine
Dr. O’Neill grew up in San Antonio, where he graduated from Winston Churchill High School in 1998. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Texas A&M University in 2002. He worked as a paramedic after graduating from Texas A&M.
In 2004, he began attending TCOM and graduated in 2008.
Emergency medicine was a natural fit for him. He works nights, weekends and holidays in a setting of continual learning.
Dr. O’Neill said emergency medicine offers a “true team approach” and diverse work settings, including urban emergency rooms, academic centers or small communities.
“You get to see everything, but you are also responsible for seeing everything,” he said.
Emergency medicine also offers the emotional highs of helping heal and the lows of treating the most vulnerable, he said.
Dr. O’Neill said one of his most rewarding emergency room memories involved resuscitating a 4-day-old baby.
The baby came in with generalized seizures, he said, explaining that she was afebrile and had a normal head CT scan. She had no evidence of trauma.
“She was profoundly hypoglycemic and required a continuous dextrose infusion,” he said. “We had to intubate her to support her airway.”
Dr. O’Neill said caring for children is gratifying.
“It’s terrifying and rewarding at the same time,” he said.
‘I need to stay strong for my patients’
Dr. O’Neill said while on the front lines against COVID-19, he has to stay healthy – physically and emotionally. He has to keep his family safe, too.
“I have unfortunately had to isolate myself from my family during the peak of the pandemic in New York,” said Dr. O’Neill, who lives on Long Island with his two sons, ages 4 and 4 months, and his wife, Tara.
Across the globe, victims of COVID-19 include emergency medicine professionals. Dr. O’Neill said family, patients and co-workers help quell fears.
“I know I need to stay strong for my patients,” he said. “They are so afraid so I focus on anything positive such as our discharge board that shows how many people we sent home.”
Dr. O’Neill and his coworkers keep their spirits up by making “silly TikTok dance videos during downtime.”
Staying protected has been critical to Dr. O’Neill’s work. He said his hospital provided the protective gear they needed, including N95 masks for every shift. He said he is diligent with his PPE and wears paper scrubs over his scrubs. He changes into street clothes when he leaves work.
“I undress in the garage and head immediately to a shower when I get home,” he said, explaining that all his dirty clothes go directly in the wash and his work shoes stay in his car trunk.
While cases have been decreasing in Long Island, Dr. O’Neill and his team are ready to fight any re-emergence. He said he has learned some personal lessons from the crisis.
“It is very important to enjoy your family. Enjoy the little things. Enjoy your loved ones,” he stressed.