Essential Worker Health

Three days after Dr. Jeffrey Bumpous was diagnosed with COVID-19, he took a sip from his morning cup of coffee, but couldn’t taste a thing.

“I lost my taste of sense and smell, which is really a bizarre experience on a personal level,” Bumpous said.

It’s a symptom he’s well acquainted with as an ear, nose and throat specialist for the University of Louisville Hospital, and a hallmark of the disease caused by COVID-19.

As both a physician and a surgeon, Bumpous has been caring for COVID-19 patients since April, about a month after the first case was diagnosed in the state.

Bumpous would often see patients with COVID-19 when they were severely ill, after they’d already been intubated, and in need of surgery that would help them breathe. These surgeries give his patients a chance to survive, but they also increase the risk for him and other health care workers.

Tracheostomies for example, are designed to help patients breathe, but can aerosolize respiratory fluids and spread the virus.

UofL Health

Dr. Jeffrey Bumpous

Bumpous says UofL Hospital changed some protocols for similar kinds of surgeries, and outfitted health care workers with protective equipment including N-95 masks and powered air purifying respirators. They compared practices with doctors across the country and watched for news overseas as cases mounted in Italy and China. And outside the hospital, Bumpous wore a mask in public, diligently washed his hands and avoided exposures where he could.

He’s not sure where or when he contracted COVID himself. Everyone who comes into the hospital is tested, but he also works in a clinic where they take temperatures but aren’t testing universally. And as the months wore on, and cases mounted, the risks increased.

“I’m not 100% certain whether it was community exposure or possibly exposure to the clinic. If it was an exposure in the workplace it was more likely an exposure in the clinic than in the hospital or operating room,” he said.

Bumpous is 58, and like many Americans, he has high blood pressure, which puts him at higher risk of a more severe infection with COVID-19. 

He began to feel fatigued one day in early November. The next day, after completing a surgery, he caught a fever. A rapid COVID test came back positive.

“I was a little apprehensive at first, because you don’t really know early on, are you going to have serious symptoms, is this going to be a serious infection or are you going to be able to control this like a mild or flu?” Bumpous said. 

About three days in is when he lost his sense of taste and smell. He found it “kind of interesting.”

“If I were eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I knew that’s what I was eating because of the consistency, but absolutely could not smell or taste it whatsoever,” he said.

His fever, a dry cough and a severe headache lasted several days. But he felt better after about two weeks and returned to work, where he continues to care for patients with COVID-19. The fatigue lasted a while longer, but he was fortunate not to have the longer term symptoms that others have reported.

Now Bumpous is encouraging others to remain vigilant and follow health guidelines during the holiday season as he himself is doing, out of respect for all health care practitioners and hospital staff, from the custodians to the respiratory therapists, to the nurses and doctors. 

“I have enduring respect for our emergency medicine physicians, all of our ICU physicians, everyone who is working the hospital, certainly an amazing amount of respect for our nursing staff. Really beyond that, think of all the infrastructure that makes the hospital work, the maintenance staff, the people in respiratory care,” Bumpous said. 

Mindy Fulner
Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.