Dr. Anthony Slonim’s father, also named Anthony, died April 14 due to complications from COVID-19. The president and CEO of Reno, Nev.-based Renown Health penned this tribute to honor his father and to recognize the resiliency of a workforce that is being deeply, and personally, impacted by this pandemic.
At 5 a.m. on a recent Friday, my phone rang. My first thoughts when I heard the phone were that it might be one of our team members who needed to inform me about something related to our COVID-19 planning, the impending surge, or a deficiency of supplies or equipment. As the CEO for our health system, we had been planning for weeks, doing all the right things like so many other healthcare leaders and organizations across the country. Our teams were doing what we needed to do to ensure the safety of our community during the pandemic.
However, this call was from my father who was clearly short of breath. You see, dad had a number of chronic illnesses that he had fought for almost half of his 80 years of life. He was a warrior who demonstrated resilience in the face of numerous health adversities. He was being treated and sequestered at home in New Jersey, an epicenter for COVID-19, and had been taking some medications for about five days for “bronchitis,” which we all knew could be indolent coronavirus.
Now he was calling for advice, because he was more short of breath. From 2,700 miles away, he asked for my thoughts on what to do. His biggest concern, as it had been for their 57 years of marriage, was about my mom and not his health. Maybe he could stick it out, perhaps get some oxygen at home? By the end of the call, we both realized that was not going to be an option. We said “I love you” to each other and hung up the phone with a plan to have him call 911 and go to the local emergency department.
Hospitals for me, like many other healthcare leaders, are a place of hope and determination. I have been in hospitals for most of my life starting as a candy striper in the ED at age 14. In my career, I have been fortunate to associate hospitals with positive outcomes. The hospital that dad was brought to is the same hospital where I graduated from nursing school nearly 35 years ago and worked as a nurse in the ED. It is also the hospital where both of my children were born. Since then, I became an intensivist, public health professional and CEO. While I have certainly seen my share of negative outcomes in hospitals throughout my career, I have always admired the spirit of those who choose to serve others in a variety of careers in our industry.
Our teams are incredible and sometimes nothing short of miraculous. Nothing brings out the best in healthcare more than when we are working together, shoulder to shoulder as teammates, combating the unknown. Healthcare is a calling different from other industries. People are drawn to it from many diverse backgrounds—accounting, human resources, marketing and legal professionals, facilities staff, technicians and aides, pharmacists, nurses, and physicians. It takes this team to operate the complexity of our work to ensure that we can be there when the community depends on us. And today, our collective community depends on us more than ever before.
Dad rallied for the better part of two weeks with the usual ups and downs of this dreadful disease. The news of dad’s death came on my birthday as we were hosting the community on a tour of our parking deck, which we had just converted to an alternate care site for 1,500 potential COVID-19 victims. I received a call from his physician, who had been in touch with me numerous times throughout the week and on this call paused from all that she was doing to offer her condolences. As an intensivist, she was sympathetic and shared all that the team had done. In these trying times, she still cared. She said dad was comfortable and did not die alone though none of our family could be there.
The team did the best they could despite the circumstances to care for him when all other options had been tried. While they were doing the same for so many others, she made me feel as though we were the center of her universe, something that only comes from a relationship between a doctor, her patient and their family.
Against my better judgment, my loving wife, family and team encouraged me to take some time off to grieve—time that would be essential for me despite all that was going on. I used this time to reflect, to remember, and to honor a man of enormous generosity and faith who cherished family. It is a bit ironic that for all of the many health problems dad endured, he would meet his demise through a virus. Not just any virus, but one that caused a global pandemic.
Now, as all of the condolences and expressions of sympathy wane and the flowers die, we continue to struggle with the realities that this virus that took my dad’s and so many other lives is here to stay and may, in fact, surge again in just a few months. For those of us who will get up tomorrow to combat this dreadful disease, as we have done so often in the past, this time will be a bit different. We have all been affected very personally by this pandemic and have come to know that the more than 50,000 deaths associated with it affect all of us in some way.
A couple of days after my father’s death, we were given an opportunity to display an amazing piece of art by Jeff Schomberg on our main campus in honor of all of our healthcare heroes here and around the world. The sculpture debuted at the Burning Man event in Nevada in 2011. It is elegant in its simplicity and consists of four letters, L-O-V-E, made from steel. I am appreciative of art in its many forms and for me, this sculpture could not have come at a better time. When I drive by it each day, it represents for me a local memorial to my father and reminds me that love, hope, and determination are emblematic for us as we continue to serve others in healthcare.