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A Lung Specialist Returns to the Brigham to Fight COVID-19

For the past 16 years, Richard Riese, MD, PhD, has worked in the biopharmaceutical industry, holding leadership positions at Pfizer, Alexion and Alnylam. He’s currently the chief medical officer at Synlogic, Inc. in Cambridge, MA.

“I was watching the devastating news reports of the COVID-19 pandemic—the shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE) and the need for medical personnel—and I decided I wanted to help,” says Dr. Riese.

In the early 2000s, Dr. Riese trained as a pulmonologist in the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine (PCCM) at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. For 4 years, he worked as an attending physician alongside Bruce Levy, MD, now the chief of the PCCM.

Donating Time, Energy and Expertise During COVID-19

Dr. Riese had been out of clinical practice for 16 years, but he’d maintained his medical license. “I knew how to care for patients on ventilators, so I reached out to my friend and colleague, Dr. Levy, and told him that I wanted to volunteer,” says Dr. Riese.

His timing couldn’t have been better. The Brigham was asking physicians to volunteer from the community. Dr. Riese was invited back to the PCCM as a fellow and he rearranged his work schedule to accommodate 12-hour shifts at the Brigham.

“It was incredibly generous of Dr. Riese to donate his time, energy and expertise,” says Dr. Levy. “It’s reflective of the tremendous expression of support from our extended Brigham community of healers who volunteered to care for the surging numbers of patients with COVID-19,” says Dr. Levy.

As Dr. Riese underwent the credentialing process, he reacquainted himself with ICU medicine. He also studied the Brigham’s COVID Clinical Guidelines, a resource for providers that includes up-to-date protocols for working COVID-19 patients.

Richard Riese, MD, PhD, with Rebecca Baron, MD, in the COVID-19 Unit at Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Returning to the Clinic After 16 Years in Industry

On April 8, Dr. Riese became the first Brigham volunteer to receive emergency credentials during the COVID-19 pandemic. A few days later, on Easter Sunday, he started his first rotation in one of the special pathogens units (SPUs) in the Shapiro Cardiovascular Center, where Brigham patients with COVID-19 receive care.

“I was a bit nervous coming back to clinical medicine after being away so long,” says Dr. Riese. “It went smoother than I thought it would. The clinical teams were wonderful to work with and so well organized—it felt great to be part of the Brigham again.”

Dr. Riese did a total of nine shifts at the Brigham—seven day shifts and two overnights. The biggest impact he thought he had was giving other fellows a break by taking their rotations. “I was proud to step in and give doctors much-needed time off,” he says.

Providing Compassionate Care in the Brigham ICUs

Much had changed since Dr. Riese had left clinical medicine but the feeling of losing a battle with a patient was equally painful. Working with COVID-positive patients in the ICUs forced Dr. Riese to bear witness to human suffering, but there many wins, too.

“Many patients recovered, and it was the Brigham’s extraordinary providers and incredible organization that made the difference,” says Dr. Riese. “I’ll never forget the moments when we were able to extubate patients after weeks of being on a ventilator.”

Dr. Levy says the ethos of clinical care in the PCCM follows the wisdom of the Brigham’s first chief resident, Francis W. Peabody, MD, who once wrote, ‘The secret of the care of the patient is in caring for the patients.’ “Dr. Riese is a shining example of a Brigham-trained compassionate care provider,” says Dr. Levy.

Remembering the Art of Medicine

Dr. Riese says it was a challenge handling the nuances of applying medical knowledge to each case. For example, the decision to extubate a patient after 3 weeks is based on strict parameters, but it also requires intuition.

“There’s an art to medicine that develops with time and experience,” says Dr. Riese. “I had the knowledge and knew the numbers, but it’s the providers who have been practicing medicine for years who know in their gut what to do at every turn.”

According to Dr. Riese, Rebecca Baron, MD was one of those providers. They had worked together in the early 2000s when Dr. Riese was an attending. “Dr. Baron is a master clinician and a great example of a physician who’s skilled in the art of transforming medical science into exceptional care,” says Dr. Riese.

Dr. Riese says he was also deeply impressed with the nurses in the Brigham’s COVID units. “They were constantly entering patients’ rooms, more so than the physicians,” he says. “It was real bravery.”

Volunteering Reignited a Passion for Medicine

To celebrate patients who had won their battles with COVID-19, Brigham staff would gather in the lobby at 75 Francis Street for Operation Hope. Dr. Riese attended these celebrations to cheer and applaud. “It was moving to celebrate these successes during such a stressful time—they almost made me cry,” he says.

Unexpectedly, Dr. Riese says his volunteering experience at the Brigham reignited a passion for clinical medicine. He’s now considering picking up a few clinical rotations on the weekends as he continues his work in industry.

“I reached out to volunteer, because I wanted to help during the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Dr. Riese. “I was very fortunate to be able to return to the Brigham where my medical career began.”