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At Bristol Hospital, the top executive came down with COVID-19. He’s the face of recovery

By Hartford Courant

April 20, 2020

As president of Bristol Hospital, Kurt Barwis spent March 27 reviewing preparations for the coronavirus wave, double-checking that his 1,700 employees were doing everything possible to keep themselves healthy.

That night, he noticed he had a sore throat and congestion. The next day he developed a piercing headache, and by the next week, a test confirmed he had the virus.

“When I got the test, I still thought it was a cold, allergies — I thought I was good to go,” Barwis recalled. “When it came back positive, I was like ‘OK, this is not good.’ Honestly, I felt a little embarrassed.”

Barwis suffered just a short, mild illness, recuperating so quickly that he went back to work at the hospital late last week. For some employees, he has become a face of recovery during a time when COVID-19 is starting to hit Hartford County hard.

“One thing I find impressive about him is he really knows his employees — you’ll see him in the cafeteria at lunch, he’ll sit with you and talk about things," said ICU nurse Igra Abbas. “Our relationship with him is really special. Hearing he had it, we were all shocked and worried. Now everyone’s so happy for him that he’s back.”

Her colleague, Christine Ieronimo, who has worked in the ICU for 26 years, agreed.

“He’s a very visible leader, he actually just stopped by to see how we’re doing. We’re all happy he’s back,” Ieronimo said. “To see people get better is a huge morale booster. In the ICU, so far we’ve been able to remove two people from ventilators. People who will recover. That’s what keeps us going.”

So far, six COVID-19 patients at the hospital have died, so good news and recoveries are at a premium.

“There are these little rays of sunshine," Abbas said. "Today we had a patient — he had been really ill and intubated, now he’s doing better and being transferred out. He got extubated. He was wheeled out in a wheelchair, we were all clapping for him, we were ecstatic.”

Barwis said he’s grateful that his case was mild.

“I feel blessed. I’m 100% recovered. Maybe the antibodies are kicking in, but I feel like I could run a marathon at this point,” he said.

Barwis and his senior medical team were ahead of the curve in Connecticut with many coronavirus preparations.

Bristol Hospital was the first to institute strict rules limiting visitors, and was the third in Connecticut to open a drive-up COVID-19 test center. Emergency room staff were trying to conserve face masks and gowns as early as February. Barwis himself had ended in-person staff meetings, and was an early promoter of social distancing.

So when he went for a test on the morning of March 30, Barwis expected he would be OK.

“That was Monday. On Friday night, I had a sore throat and some coughing, but what made it different than a regular cold was the terrible headache. It was nonstop and I couldn’t get rid of it,” Barwis said. “I got the chills over the weekend, I felt weak. I knew I couldn’t walk through the door of the hospital feeling that way Monday morning, so I called the emergency department director and went through the symptoms. He said to get a test.”

The hospital had just started a test agreement with Jackson Labs, and Barwis’ test came back within a day.

Barwis said his first feeling was embarrassment.

“I liken this to maybe 20 years ago, when I went to play paintball with my wife’s cousins in New Jersey. I’d never played paintball — we started crawling in the pine barrens, and no more than 10 seconds into the game a paintball hit me in the mouth,” he said. “Ten seconds, I’m done. That’s how I felt getting COVID-19 right as it all started to crank up.”

Barwis, 61, essentially moved into the second floor of his house to protect his wife, who had undergone major surgery in January. In the next few days, he suffered night sweats and severe chills, and toward the end of that week, lost his sense of smell and taste. He thought about a few of the more disturbing COVID-19 accounts.

“I thought about the story of one man in Waterbury who was young, in his 40s, he had some minor conditions but otherwise he was healthy, productive, working, had a family and kids. And he passed," Barwis said. "I remember thinking to myself ‘this could go in the other direction ... do I have everything prepared, is everything in order?’ ”

He said he stayed focused by working from home, conducting a daily series of phone, Google Hangouts and Zoom meetings. Barwis, who had taken on the additional role of chief financial officer, directed staffing decisions and spent hours studying details of government programs to give financial relief to hospitals.

“When I lost taste and smell, I thought I was getting worse. You can’t help but have those feelings,” he said. “My answer was to work through it. You try to focus on the things you can help with. I looked through the relief money information thinking, how do we make it to the other side? This hospital is coming up on its 100th anniversary — it would be just horrible if we lost this organization because we couldn’t make it.”

In between work, Barwis fielded get-well calls from Gov. Ned Lamont and Richard Pollack, head of the American Hospital Association.