May 4, 2020
Brain Injury Specialist Joins Other Health Care Workers Back to Work After Recovery
As a brain injury specialist, Richard J. Malone, D.O., does not work directly with patients seeking care for COVID-19. But today, every health care worker, no matter their specialty, is inevitably on the front lines of the battle against the global pandemic.
Dr. Malone works in the Brain Trauma Unit at Hackensack Meridian JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute, where for more than 26 years he has treated patients with serious brain injuries and illness.
In March, early in the pandemic and just as COVID-19 patients began showing up at New Jersey hospitals, a stroke patient Dr. Malone was treating had an elevated temperature and later tested positive for the coronavirus. Another patient with brain trauma also tested positive.
So when Dr. Malone woke up on the morning of March 26 with a mild sore throat, headache and chills, he knew a COVID -19 diagnosis was possible. He also had another telltale symptom.
“I had diminished smell and taste,” he recalled. He had no cough, chest tightness, or trouble breathing.
Dr. Malone – who specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation and holds a sub-specialty certification in Brian Injury Medicine – self-quarantined in a room in his house in Nutley.
He reached out to Sara Cuccurullo, M.D., vice president and medical director of JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute, and to the institute’s department of Occupational Health. He received a test and on April 1 got a call that he tested positive for COVID-19.
For five days, he battled the symptoms, including fatigue, as his wife and daughter left him food at his door. Dr. Malone eventually recovered, thankful that the disease did not progress to serious complications. He quarantined according to U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) protocols and was cleared by Occupational Health to return to work.
“You feel a real sense of urgency to get back and help,” Dr. Malone said. “Other people were covering for me, and I wanted to be there to support my colleagues and our patients.”
The global pandemic is taking a toll on health care workers across the nation. According to the CDC, more than 9000 have tested positive, though experts say the actual number is far higher.
Dr. Malone said his recovery and return to work merits no more attention than the recovery of other health workers. Nonetheless, the unpredictability of the course of the virus left many thankful for Dr. Malone’s full recovery.
“It was an inspiration to all of us on the Brain Trauma unit to see Dr. Malone back,” said Laura Mularz, DMP, MSN, RN, APN, director of JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute Nursing and Patient Care Services. “Dr. Malone plays such an instrumental role on the unit, and everyone knows his dedication to his patients. His commitment to being such a thorough physician probably put him at risk.”
Laura Fazzari, PT, DPT, physical therapy supervisor, said Dr. Malone is a respected brain injury physician and a leader on the Brain Trauma Unit. “Everybody was worried about him,” she said. “We felt a loss when he was out and we were all elated when he returned. In these times, everybody is scared and worried when someone goes out sick.”
Although people who recover from COVID-19 may have some immunity, the science is not yet clear.
Dr. Cuccurullo said the need for rehabilitation is emerging as a critical component of recovery for post-COVID patients. Many need rehabilitation for pulmonary pathology, functional deficits and neurologic injuries secondary to the COVID-19 virus. Patients who have spent time dependent on ventilators during their recovery are especially deconditioned and can benefit greatly from a comprehensive pulmonary rehabilitation program.
“We’re grateful for Dr. Malone’s clinical excellence and experience,” Dr. Cuccurullo said. “All of our staff, nurses, therapists, doctors and residents have really put the patients first and put themselves at risk to make sure our patients received the highest level of care. Dr. Malone and every member of our staff have shown tremendous courage and fortitude weathering this crisis.”