CHICAGO — A few things keep Dr. Khalilah Gates and Dr. Michelle Prickett walking into Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s intensive care unit, where they treat severely ill COVID-19 patients.
A sense of duty. A passion for their profession. And their friendship, honed over more than a decade and which they’ve always counted on for shared humor that punctuates hectic, hard days in their work as pulmonary and critical care specialists.
“You dig deep and you face the ICU for another day,” Gates said, “knowing that you’ve got Prickett.”
These ICU doctors’ friendship has always been strong. But this year, it’s been a lifeline, as they work to keep each other safe and sane while treating COVID-19 patients.
Gates and Prickett share a get-it-done, no-drama mentality. Their bond was solidified by sharing stories of being born and raised in Chicago and how they chose to stay here, raise families here and practice medicine here.
This year, they have leaned on each other like never before. They love their families. They have other friends. But who else can know the feeling of watching someone die alone?
“There’s not a lot of explanation that needs to be had,” Gates said. “I can just say what I need to say and she gets it, because she’s living it with me.”
Between the two of them, the banter tends toward light. But both know the risks they expose themselves to each day are serious. They share the fear of bringing home a deadly virus to their small children. Gates said they have not lost a close colleague to COVID-19, but that provides little comfort.
“We’ve been lucky,” she said. “But there’s always that fear.”
Both doctors are expert clinicians and compassionate caregivers, said Dr. Diane Wayne, vice president of human resources at Northwestern Memorial HealthCare, who considers them “precious resources.” “They’re both really heroes,” Wayne said. “The stress on front-line workers is really intense.”
When Prickett was in medical school, Wayne directed the residency program. She watched Prickett become a respected leader who brings an “aura of calm” into any room. “People around the hospital are very comfortable and calm despite the uncertainties of what’s coming, because of how well-respected Dr. Prickett is,” Wayne said.
Wayne has become a mentor also to Gates, whom Wayne described as a true educator, arriving every day wondering how to best help patients. “She’s the kind of person who goes home after a really long day and thinks, ‘How can I do this better tomorrow?’ and ‘How can I teach the people around me to do this better tomorrow?’” Wayne said.
When they met in 2007, Prickett and Gates bonded over being two women in a male-dominated field. They were two in a class of four female fellows, and all spent hours together. Neither remembers anything tentative about their connection.
“We were kind of like friends at first sight,” Prickett said. “It’s always been a sisterhood.”
Both were attracted to the complexity of their work. Prickett loves fixing things; her father was a toolmaker who made pieces for machines. “Taking things apart and putting them together is always fascinating to me,” she said. Critical care is a bit like tinkering, she said. Doctors take in data, make assessments and see what happens and then continue, or change course.
And both shared stories of growing up in Chicago — Gates grew up on the Near West Side, where she currently lives; Prickett has lived on the North Side her entire life and lives on the same street as her childhood home.
“That has sealed our bond, knowing this city our entire life,” Prickett said.
Before COVID-19, they would catch up in the break room, or walk to The Windsor for a happy hour drink. Outside of work, their families gathered for dinner parties and play dates. In a time that now feels like a dream, they would meet at the Pricketts’, who love to host, the adults drinking sangria while children played. Their families grew along with their friendship; Prickett attended Gates’ wedding; Gates watched as Prickett became a mother of three. When Gates had her daughter, now 3, Prickett gave her advice on healing after childbirth.
By last year, each felt in a groove. Prickett heads a pulmonary clinic where she sees outpatients with airway issues and chronic infections; Gates is one of the main educators in critical care as assistant dean of medical education at Feinberg School of Medicine. Their focus was sharing what worked, propelling others forward.
“In academia and in professional life, a lot of people are always trying to push everybody down,” Prickett said. “Our goal is to lift everybody up.”
They worked to maintain that positivity this year as the pandemic swept into the city.
At the beginning of the year, Gates’ 68-year-old father mentioned stocking up on masks. “I was like, what are you talking about, dude?” she remembers. A patient recently reminded her, “Dr. Gates, remember when you said not to worry about coronavirus?”
“I was like, yep, I remember,” she said. “I think, naively, I had faith that we would handle it better.”
Prickett had heard something about a virus in January. Her husband usually traveled a lot for work; he started staying home. Even anticipating how a virus might arrive in Chicago, she said, “I never imagined anything could be to the scope that we saw, to be quite frank, not in my wildest dreams.”
By March, she said, “We knew something was going on.” Patients started showing up with fevers and coughs but not the flu. She started to self-quarantine before she had her first case.
The first confirmed COVID-19 cases in Northwestern’s intensive care unit were her patients. They arrived with fevers and pneumonia, becoming more and more short of breath, eventually needing ventilators. Prickett remembers having to do a bronchoscopy to sample their lungs for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention testing.
The number of cases per week went from zero to seven or eight. She began to think about how they could take spare parts and build respirators.
“It came kind of fast and furious,” Prickett said. “It was high risk and very stressful.”
Around this time, one morning, Gates was preparing to take her daughter to day care. Two days before, she had performed a bronchoscopy on a COVID-19 patient.
She recalled realizing, “Geez, I don’t know what we’re dealing with. I just did a bronchoscopy, my kid is with me, and I’m going to send her to school.” Her husband began taking care of their daughter at home.
Like other Chicago parents, it has been challenging to juggle work and home life. Prickett’s sons are 7, 9 and 12; the youngest had the toughest time when she initially isolated downstairs in what the family dubbed the “Mom cave.”
“They understood it was to keep them safe, but my youngest was only 6 at the time and had a hard time seeing me only by FaceTime when he knew I was only one floor below,” she said.
Within the hospital, chats in the break room are no longer safe. Instead, Prickett and Gates text constantly, volleying gifs; they yell to each other through their offices’ adjoining wall.
This summer, those talks expanded as both watched the unrest following George Floyd’s killing. Throughout their friendship, they’d had conversations about race and cultural sensitivity issues, discussing, for example, how to handle a situation when a severely ill patient said something inappropriate to a colleague wearing a hijab.
But this summer prompted deeper conversations. Having her friend say, “I get it. This is not right,” Gates said, was “priceless.”
“You often feel like you’re isolated and nobody understands,” she said. “And to have someone that gets it and gets the complexity of it has been great, getting through this summer.”
The times they find themselves reaching out — typing out a text, or scanning for their friend in the hallway — is often after a patient dies in isolation. Visiting policies restrict family members from seeing infected relatives; the risk to medical staff limits their room entries.
Before COVID-19, Prickett’s rule was that no one died alone. Doctors see situations where family cannot make it in time; not everyone has someone. “Typically we like to have someone at the bedside for those moments,” she said.
But beyond safety precautions, as the city faces an increase of COVID-19 cases, not enough staff is always available to sit with a patient in their final moments.
Recently, Prickett was in the ICU. She was getting “hit hard,” Gates recalled. Multiple patients were admitted; not only COVID-19 patients, but also the others who still and suddenly need their care — people in shock and respiratory failure.
Before Gates headed home, she stopped at Walgreens, where she bought a colorful balloon that read, “Thank you.”
She brought it to her friend. “Hey,” she said, “I think you need this.”
©2020 Chicago Tribune