Doctors on the frontlines say they’re astonished at how many relatively young people are becoming severely ill from the novel coronavirus. 

Business Insider spoke with one 31-year-old New York doctor who was about to be admitted to the ICU before starting to recover from COVID-19. 

“For someone in their 40s, 50s, you want to try every thing you can to get them to survive,” one ICU doctor told Business Insider.

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Medical staff tend to a patient in the emergency COVID-19 ward at the San Carlo Hospital in Milan, Italy.

Associated Press

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When Dr. Anar Yukhayev’s patient told him she’d developed a fever after a recent trip to Italy, he ran out of the room and grabbed a mask for each of them.

By that point, the 31-year-old obstetrician-gynecologist had been face-to-face with her for 20 minutes.

It was the first week of March, when reports of the novel coronavirus were starting to emerge in the New York City area. Westchester county, north of the city, was already seeing a cluster of cases. 

Yukhayev works at Katz Women’s Hospital at Long Island Jewish Medical Center on the border of Queens and Suffolk County in New York.

The following week, he started to feel off, with back and muscle aches. Then, he spiked a fever. 

He got tested on March 13, two days after the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic. The state by that point had hundreds of confirmed cases. By the following week, he was so sick that his colleagues were thinking about putting him on a ventilator.

Yukhayev’s experience of getting severely ill is common in hospitals overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. Patients between 30 and 59 made up roughly a third of hospital admissions evaluated by Northwell Health, the health system Yukhayev’s a part of, according to an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association. 

The shock of finding otherwise healthy people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, in the hospital severely ill with COVID-19 has been a common refrain in Business Insider’s conversations with doctors on the front lines. Other viral outbreaks, especially the flu, tend to hit the youngest and oldest Americans the hardest.

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Nine days in the hospital

Yukhayev told BI he was so short of breath he could only get a few words out. 

“I heard a gurgle, a crackle of water in my lungs every time I took a breath,” Yukhayev said. 

He said he couldn’t get out of bed, didn’t have an appetite, and had a fever.

Dr. Anar Yukhayev, an OB-GYN, was hospitalized with COVID-19.

Northwell Health

He was admitted to the hospital and given azithromycin, hydroxychloroquine, and an oxygen mask to help him breathe. 

Six days after he was tested, shortly after his doctors had entered him into a clinical trial for a Regeneron drug, Yukhayev was still getting worse. His doctors told him his next step would be to be put on a ventilator. 

“That was my worst fear,” Yukhayev said. 

He spent the next day in the intensive care unit, where the doctors continued to monitor him.

Then, he started to get better.

On March 26, he was discharged, after spending 9 days in the hospital.

Treating younger, otherwise healthy patient who are severely ill

Stories of young people getting sick and even dying from the coronavirus are becoming commonplace.

A 38-year-old Ironman athlete in Minnesota nearly died from COVID-19 and as of mid-April still needed oxygen to help him breathe.

David Lat, a 44-year-old marathon runner was hospitalized in Manhattan for 17 days, six of which he spent on ventilator support to help him breathe.

The virus almost killed a 47-year-old New Jersey doctor, who was running 16-20 miles a week before getting sick.

As of April 12, adults between 18 and 44 accounted for roughly 11% of all New York hospital admissions, while those between 45 and 64 accounted for 27%.. 

Cases in NYC by age APRIL 12

Skye Gould/Insider

To be sure, a look at hospitalization rates from March showed that rates of hospitalization per 100,000 people were highest among older Americans, especially those 75 and up.

In a hospital on Long Island, the ICU has patients in their 20s, Dr. Dixie Harris, an ICU doctor who flew out from Utah to help with the crisis, said. It’s somewhat unusual to care for so many young people, and doctors feel extra pressure to find ways to help them recover, she said.

“For someone in their 40s, 50s, you want to try every thing you can to get them to survive,” Harris said.

In Newark, New Jersey, an intensive-care doctor told Business Insider in March that in the ICU of Newark Beth Israel Medical Center he had young patients in their 20s and 30s on ventilators.

One day in March, an ER nurse at NYU said she had to intubate two patients in their 30s.

“We’ve started to see a little more infection in really sick presentations in younger patients than we would’ve thought,” Dr. Thomas Maddox, who serves as chair of the science and quality committee of the American College of Cardiology, told Business Insider.  

Younger patients are often outfitted with a non-rebreather mask in the ER, and given “just oxygen and oxygen and oxygen,” emergency room physician Dr. Cleavon Gilman told Business Insider’s Hilary Brueck. 

Returning to the hospital

A week after being discharged, Yukhayev was back in the hospital — this time to care for a patient who had tested positive for the coronavirus and was about to have her baby via a C-section. 

Yukhayev performed the procedure, which took about an hour, and it was uneventful, he said. After, however, he was still short of breath, a problem made worse by the need to wear extra protective gear in the operating room.

Returning to the hospital where he was a week ago a patient was a surreal experience, Yukhayev said.

In the hallways, he ran into healthcare workers who had taken care of him who were happy to see him better. Knowing he wasn’t fully recovered, Yukhayev took a few more days off before returning to work on April 13, a month after initially being tested. 

“I’m better than I was before I got sick,” Yukhayev said. “After that you get a new experience of not taking life for granted.”

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