Early in the pandemic, as hospitals in New York began postponing operations to make way for the flood of Covid-19 cases, Dr. Tomoaki Kato continued to perform surgery. Patients still needed liver transplants, and some were too sick to wait.
At 56, Dr. Kato was healthy and exceptionally fit. He had run the New York City Marathon seven times, and he specialized in operations that were also marathons, some lasting 20 hours. He was renowned for surgical innovations, deft hands and sheer stamina. At NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, his boss has called him “our Michael Jordan.”
Dr. Kato became ill with Covid-19 in March 2020, and was soon one of the sickest patients in his own hospital. He came close to death “many, many times,” according to Dr. Marcus R. Pereira, who oversaw Dr. Kato’s care and is the medical director of the center’s infectious disease program for transplant recipients.
When the worst had passed, colleagues feared that he might never be able to perform surgery again. But Dr. Kato emerged from two months in the hospital with a determination to get back to work and a new sense of urgency about the need to teach other surgeons the innovations he had developed. His illness also enabled him to connect with patients in new ways.
“I really never understood well enough how patients feel,” he said. Despite telling patients, “‘Even though it looks like hell now, it will get better and you’ll get through it,’” he said, “I really never understood what that hell means.”