Hospital staff member looking at screen

When Doctor Becomes Patient
Story 3

A physician's battle with COVID-19 brought new meaning to teamwork and leadership.

Dr. Arby Nahapetian, Chief Medical Officer of Adventist Health’s Care Division, is not sure how he contracted COVID-19. But three weeks after its onset, he was feeling well enough to pick up takeout with his family. 

“As we were driving, I got a strange kind of acute pain in my abdomen,” Arby recalls. They turned around to head home, his wife urging him to consider going to the ER. “As this conversation was going, I realized all of a sudden that I couldn't talk,” Arby says. “My wife immediately started screaming that I was having a stroke.” He remembers thinking the same thing—but being unable to say anything himself.

Dr. Arby Nahapetian

Vascular and interventional neurologist Dr. Mikayel Grigoryan remembers being surprised by a phone call that Friday night. 

“I was not on call, but in our line of work, your phone is always on and you're always available,” he explains. “I got a phone call from a dear friend and an excellent physician telling me that Arby was in the Emergency Department.”

Ambulatory Medical Officer Dr. James Burke remembers receiving a similar call from a colleague. “He was panicked to the point where he said, ‘Arby is unresponsive. We’ve called the entire team, and it doesn’t look good.’”

By the time Dr. Burke arrived, Arby was surrounded by a care team that included a group of advanced specialists. “He could completely understand us, but he couldn't speak,” Dr. Burke explains. “Everybody had descended upon him.”

"He could completely understand us, but he couldn't speak."

The team discovered Arby had a large blood clot impairing the flow of oxygen to the left side of his brain. 

“COVID is known for forming blood clots, but unlike traditional stroke that the blood clot is in the brain, his clot was actually in the neck on the left side,” explains Dr. Grigoryan. “There are no guidelines for this kind of treatment.”

At the bedside of his colleague and friend, Dr. Grigoryan had a tough decision to make: Treat the clot with blood thinners or go in surgically to retrieve it. “The danger of going to fetch that clot out is that you can push it further up, and it can break into many pieces,” he explains. “We made the decision to get the clot out.” 

In the cath lab that night, Arby’s first memory was of Dr. Grigoryan, his colleague, friend, and – in this case, doctor – asking him if he could speak.

“The first thing [Arby] said was, ‘What do you want me to say?’ Dr. Grigoryan recalls. “And we all started laughing.”

The other thing Arby fondly remembers is seeing faces he recognized. “I realized that most of the people taking care of me were folks who had come on a mission trip or two or three with me, and that was actually a really comforting feeling.”

Dr. Arby Nahapetian and family
“These things are always a surprise – not just a humbling, but a learning experience.”

Arby’s close call served as a reminder for him and his care team of why they choose to face the challenges of their profession every day.

“We talk a lot about patient-centered care and having care that is reproduceable and reliable – right patient, right place, right time,” Arby explains. “I’ll tell you, having been the beneficiary of those sequenced events, I am unbelievably thankful.”

He adds that his crisis also shed light on how hardships like a pandemic can change us, for better or worse.

“As nurses and providers, we forget that we, too, can be patients,” Arby adds. “These things are always a surprise – not just a humbling, but a learning experience.”