At 56, Dr. Kato was healthy and exceptionally fit. He had run the New York City Marathon seven times, and he specialized in operations that were also marathons, lasting 12 or 16 or 20 hours. He was renowned for surgical innovations, deft hands and sheer stamina. At NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, where he was the surgical director of adult and pediatric liver and intestinal transplantation, his boss has called him “our Michael Jordan.”
Dr. Kato became ill with Covid-19 in March 2020.
“I was in a denial situation,” he said. “I thought I was going to be fine.”
But he soon became one of the sickest patients in his own hospital, dependent on a ventilator and other machines to pump oxygen into his bloodstream and do the work of his failing kidneys. He came close to death “many, many times,” according to Dr. Marcus R. Pereira, who oversaw Dr. Kato’s care and is the medical director of the center’s infectious disease program for transplant recipients.
Colleagues feared at first that he would not survive and then, when the worst had passed, that he might never be able to perform surgery again. But after two months in the hospital, Dr. Kato emerged with a determination to get back to work and a new sense of urgency about the need to teach other surgeons the innovative operations he had developed. His own illness also enabled him to connect with patients in ways that had not been possible before.
“I really never understood well enough how patients feel,” he said. “Even though I’m convincing patients to take a feeding tube, and encouraging them, saying, ‘Even though it looks like hell now, it will get better and you’ll get through it,’ I really never understood what that hell means.”