Fredonia alumnus Brian Strollo in the battle against COVID-19

Roger Coda
photo of stethoscope

Throughout his medical training and practice, Dr. Brian Strollo hadn’t experienced a disease affecting so many people that the medical community knew so little about, but that’s the grim reality the Fredonia graduate – and healthcare providers everywhere – are confronting in the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Strollo is an acute care surgeon and surgical intensivist at Ochsner Medical Center’s main campus in New Orleans, one of COVID-19’s early hot spots.

“Our case numbers were quite high and filled every ICU bed in our hospital, which was quite daunting,” Strollo recalled. Mardi Gras crowds and St. Patrick’s Day gatherings likely triggered that surge.

Strollo was relieved of his surgical duties for two months so he could focus solely on COVID-19 ICU patients. He had a leadership role, directing a team of physicians involved in patient treatment. So overwhelming were COVID-19 numbers that non-ICU physicians were enlisted to assist.

“As a surgeon, oftentimes there is a clear-cut problem with an obvious solution. In the COVID-19 pandemic, we had no cure, and little effective treatments early on. We had daily conference calls amongst all the ICU physicians where we would discuss treatment plans. We determined our ventilator strategy that we adopted early on was not ideal and we had to adjust and adapt,” Strollo explained.

While physicians were not able to interact with COVID-19 patients on a personal level, as they were all mechanically ventilated and unable to communicate, they do communicate with their family members daily, Strollo said, and family members couldn’t visit due to fear of spreading the virus. Some families lost multiple members.

“Early in the pandemic, families were unable to visit at all and were unable to be at their loved one’s bedside during the dying process. At times, we would sit with the patient and hold their hand in our best attempt to provide some personal comfort as they succumbed to the disease process. I cared for co-workers of mine in the ICU. It was devastating.”

Providing that care is extremely stressful, mentally and emotionally, for healthcare workers thrust into uncharted territory fighting an unknown disease.

“We had no idea about the transmission rates or if/when we, as physicians, would get sick,” Strollo said. “It was hard having an ICU full of patients that often we simply couldn’t help. Though ICU physicians deal with the sickest patients on a regular basis, the vast majority of them still get better.”

Physicians were simply not accustomed to COVID-19’s mortality rate, Strollo said. “It was emotionally draining. There were many times that despite our best efforts, we simply couldn’t save these patients.”

Being on the front lines of a pandemic on the scale of the devastating 1918 Spanish Flu seems a world away for the Batavia native, who enrolled in Fredonia’s pre-acceptance program that provided a direct path to the University at Buffalo School of Dental Medicine.

“Fredonia offered me everything I was looking for in an undergraduate institution,” Strollo said. “I liked that it wasn’t too far from home, the science program would provide an excellent education, I was able to secure some scholarship funds and the cost was extremely affordable.”

“Fredonia offered me everything I was looking for in an undergraduate institution...I liked that it wasn’t too far from home, the science program would provide an excellent education, I was able to secure some scholarship funds and the cost was extremely affordable.” - Dr. Brian Strollo

Strollo said he was looking for a smaller school with a more intimate setting and hoping to avoid large lecture halls of 500-plus students. “I enjoyed that I could get to know my professors and would be able to go to their office hours for any assistance.”

These professors included Department of Biology Professor Emeritus Wayne Yunghans, his advisor, who taught Cell Biology, which Strollo remembers as one of his most difficult courses. Biology Professor Ted Lee was also very helpful. “I can remember meeting with him when I decided to leave the 3+4 dental program and begin the medical school application process and him supporting me and assisting me through the process,” Strollo said.

Watching his sister go through the process of becoming a physician spurred Strollo’s interest in a medical career. Dentistry was in the mix for a while.    

After graduating summa cum laude with a B.S. in Biology from Fredonia in 2007, Strollo went on to earn his medical degree at the University At Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, now known as the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. A general surgery residency was undertaken in Buffalo through Jacobs. Strollo completed fellowships in surgical critical care and trauma acute care surgery/burns and received a Master of Public Health/Management, all at the University of Louisville.

Ochsner Medical Center, Strollo’s home base for the last two years, is a 750-bed tertiary care facility with nearly 1,000 healthcare providers that Strollo says delivers virtually every medical specialty imaginable. Strollo is also assistant program director for the General Surgery Residency program and assistant clerkship director for the medical students’ surgical rotation. On top of all that, he maintains a busy elective general surgery practice.

Of course, medical personnel are at risk when caring for COVID-19 patients. Every precaution, including the wearing of N95 masks, gowns and face shields, is taken when examining patients, going into patients’ rooms and performing procedures on them.

“Early on the fear of the unknown was profound,” Strollo said. “I tried to cling to the facts that the mortality rates for young, healthy individuals were exceedingly low. However, being in the COVID ICU day in and day out and seeing some patients my age it does begin to wear on one’s psyche. We really had no idea if, and when we might contract the virus or the effect it might have on us.”

Strollo began spending more of his time at his surgical practice as COVID-19 cases declined, but he continues to perform surgery on COVID-19 patients.

Though he’s happy to get away from harsh winter weather, Strollo wouldn’t rule out returning to Western New York someday.

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