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How a vascular surgery resident’s training took a detour during the pandemic

Matthew Carnevale developed his aptitude for science at Concordia
December 10, 2021
By Aviva Engel, BA 02

Medical resident Matthew Carnevale washes his hands Matthew Carnevale, BSc 15, plans to pursue academic medicine after he finishes his residency.

Before Matthew Carnevale, BSc (biology) 15, began his residency at Montefiore Medical Center in the New York City borough of the Bronx, he anticipated that the position would be extremely taxing both physically and emotionally.

He expected the gruelling 12-hour shifts and understood that he would be called upon to make life-altering decisions at lightning speed. Having just graduated from Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Carnevale was eager to dive into the world of vascular surgery at its teaching hospital, so he could specialize in diseases related to arteries and veins.

“I chose vascular surgery for the ability to operate all over the body and for the technical challenges associated with operating on blood vessels,” says Carnevale. Beyond conventional surgeries, he was excited about the prospect of using a range of advanced medical techniques and tools, and the ability to “treat certain conditions using wires, catheters, balloons and stents through an access point no bigger than a needle puncture, all under X-ray guidance.”

Carnevale could never have predicted, however, that his training would extend far beyond his specialty so soon — COVID-19 hit the hospital in March 2020. Montefiore serves one of the poorest, most diverse populations in America, and within weeks the centre became what New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof called a “hot zone” in a city ravaged by the virus.

“As things began to get worse, some residents started catching the virus and needed to quarantine,” he recalls. “During the first wave, the workload increased drastically. This was my first year as a doctor and was not something I expected to deal with so early on in my career. We were frequently redeployed to either an ICU setting to aid with the rapidly growing, critically-ill population, or to the ER to help triage the constant influx of patients.”

While elective surgeries were largely deferred, the pace in Carnevale’s department was unrelenting due to particular COVID-19 symptoms.

“The volume of emergency vascular surgery procedures was quite high, actually,” he says. “We noticed that COVID-19 was associated with the development of blood clots, often needing surgical intervention.”    

‘I had an incredible support system’

Matthew Carnevale headshot “The hardest thing to see was the patients who were dying alone,” says Carnevale of his difficult work throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Concurrent with their regular duties, Carnevale and his colleagues were tasked with making difficult decisions around resource allocation, such as who would benefit from the limited supply of ventilators, who would be placed on life support, and even whom to admit to the hospital.

“The hardest thing to see was the patients who were dying alone,” he recalls. “Visitors weren’t allowed then so many of those patients never got to say goodbye to their families. We would FaceTime family members so that they could see their loved ones, sometimes for the last time. That was difficult.

“We did our best to stay positive but the constant overhead alarms of patients going into cardiac arrest took a toll on all of us.”

Then there was the added stress of dealing with so much uncertainty.  

“The scariest part of the whole situation was the unknown,” he says. “How long would this last? What are the lasting effects of this virus? Are we doing enough to protect ourselves and our patients?

“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t scared. But I had an incredible support system both from my wife and my co-residents and attending surgeons. Our department really pulled together during this time and Zoom helped us to check in with one another.”

In addition to testing his mettle and sharpening his professional skills, experiencing COVID-19 as a first-responder taught Carnevale about the importance of family; watching others lose loved ones only made him cherish his own family in Canada more, at a time when border closures kept them apart.

These days Carnevale is upbeat and notes that the hospital is “almost” back to normal, save for a few remaining safety protocols. With two years left of his residency, he plans to pursue academic medicine following his training; something he began while studying biology at Concordia.

“As an undergrad, I conducted independent research as part of my minor in Multidisciplinary Studies in Science. Faculty were instrumental in my development as a scientist; two of my closest mentors were Chris Brett in the Department of Biology and Andreas Bergdahl in the Department of Health, Kinesiology and Applied Physiology,” Carnevale says.

“The foundation that was built at Concordia has so far culminated in over 25 peer-reviewed publications, a dozen conference presentations and one patent. My experience at Concordia was invaluable.”

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