TALLAHASSEE – Dr. Anton Kelly’s path to serving patients in the heart of New York City during the COVID-19 pandemic might be best described as less than conventional, but there is no doubt that his experience as a Florida State student-athlete left an indelible mark.
“There are a number of people who come from better backgrounds, who have not ended up at as prestigious a hospital as I currently work at,” said Kelly, a Fellow at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan. “I have to be thankful for that every day. One way or another, my background and what I’ve brought to the table have landed me in good stead…
“Every day I wear scrub caps that have Florida State on them and pay homage to where I’ve been. My life was defined as being a Florida State athlete who majored in biology and aspired to go to med school, and I made that happen.”
As a middle distance track athlete for the Noles from 1994-97, then-FSU coach Terry Long remembers Kelly for his character, likability and reliability; attributes which continue to serve him well in the midst of the greatest medical crisis our country has faced in century.
“The way you characterize him above all else was he was a high-character guy and a great teammate,” Long said of the former Tallahassee Lincoln High standout. “Anton is one of those guys that I think many, many outstanding teams have. They’re kind of the glue. They function very quietly, but they are people who have strong moral character, strong commitment and great competitive attitudes.
“Maybe they don’t get a lot of ink when they’re in school, but these are guys that are always there for you…Anton was exemplary in that area and always a guy you could count on.”
That’s exactly what the patients under Kelly’s care at New York-Presbyterian, recognized as one of the top five hospitals in the country, are counting on.
Since the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in New York City back on March 1, there have been more than 175,000 cases in the city and in excess of 14,000 deaths. In a month’s time from the first case, the city had more confirmed coronavirus cases than China, Iran and the United Kingdom.
Hospitals were besieged with patients.
Kelly was direct when asked whether he was ready for the onslaught which greets him every shift.
“As a critical care physician, well-prepared,” he said. “This is what we live for; extremely sick patients really on the verge and trying to convert them and get them back to health.
“What nobody was prepared for was the volume. They came in hard, they came in fast and they came in sick.”
He explained that every critical care physician is responsible for a unit consisting of 15-20 beds, and at any time four or five of those patients are, “really bad off.”
“Very rarely are you dealing with 15-20 patients who are really bad off, and that’s what we were thrust with,” he said. “We had to go from about 60 ICU beds to upwards of 150-200 ICU beds in a space of a week to two weeks, which is unheard of.”
The influx of COVID-19 patients forced New York-Presbyterian to convert operating rooms and recovery room into additional ICU units.
“Without question, it has brought to bear everything that you’ve learned. And things that you thought you forgot, you had to wake up to help you care for these patients, because it’s a new disease requiring new care,” he added. “Rest assured, there is a lot of fervor about it because everyone is scampering to become the expert in the field.”
Unconventional path from FSU to a physician
Despite his pre-med academic track at Florida State, Kelly didn’t immediately transition to medical school after earning his biology degree in 1997.
“FSU had to be one of the best times in my life,” he said. “I think back on all of the places I could have gone to school and I wouldn’t have changed a doggone thing about my time at Florida State. And furthermore, it was even better being an athlete…It was the right amount of stringency to get me through.”
The rigors of competing on the track, holding down a job and admittedly having “too good a time at school” didn’t quite set him up academically for transitioning to medical school. Facing the alternative, going to dental school, Kelly spent time working locally for an orthodontist and a dentist as he assessed his future.
“It wasn’t my love,” he said.
In 2000 he moved from Tallahassee to New York City and went to work for the American Lung Association, handling database design and serving as a finance director.
“The early 2000s were really interesting in the city,” said Kelly, who was working in midtown Manhattan on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 and also vividly remembers the Blackout of 2003.
Still, he hadn’t let go of his dream of becoming a doctor.
“During that time I enrolled in night school and did some post [graduate] work at the City University of New York,” Kelly said. “That’s when I got myself into med school in 2004.”
His exploration of medical school options coincided with the start of Florida State’s program. Returning home to Tallahassee had its appeal.
“Listen, you don’t appreciate Tally until you leave it,” he said. “I wanted to come back and tried to, but at that time they only took in-state residents to the med school and I had lost my [Florida] residency at that point.”
Kelly enrolled at Drexel University in Philadelphia for medical school, and upon graduation served his residence at Easton (Pa.) Hospital. While in Pennsylvania he also met his wife, Camille, and started a family. His sons Rhys and Tristan are 12 and 10, respectively.
By the time he departed for New York-Presbyterian, Kelly was board-certified in general surgery, critical care surgery and is also certified to treat burn patients. And over the course of his five years has built quite a reputation. He was selected as the 2015 Physician of the Year of NYP’s Weill Cornell Medical Center.
Applicable lessons learned along the way
Kelly is extremely appreciative of the path he has taken, from competing collegiately for the Noles – he was a member of FSU’s first ACC Indoor Championship team as a freshman in 1994 – to having the opportunity to mature before launching his medical career.
“The road I’ve taken to get here, whatever it has been, has prepared me for whatever this is and I’m handling it quite well,” he said. “There has never been a moment that any of this has been overwhelming. It has been incredible to watch, but never overwhelming.”
That may be hard to fathom considering he has spent nearly 80 days fighting to save lives alongside his colleagues in the trenches of this pandemic battle.
“As an athlete I’m used to the adrenaline rush,” Kelly said. “I’m used to controlling it and channeling it. When it comes down to it, the hard work that comes with all of this, I had to endure when I was in college.”
That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of challenges.
“There have been so many [COVID-19] patients, it has been hard to keep them as individuals, and the only way to really, really care for these people is to keep them as individuals,” he said, revealing a compassion that comes genuinely. “When they’re all coming in and they all have the same issue with the virus, it’s very easy to get them lost in the mix. Then they only become their bed number.
“To turn them around you treat them as your family, because I think that’s the easiest way to relate to their family.”
Daily, Kelly takes time to put his work in perspective:
“I walk out of the hospital and have to exhale and say, ‘All right, this day is over. Did you do some good, and if not, did you just maintain?’ You realize this situation is going to be a one-day-at-a-time kind of thing. Every day is not going to be the same. It’s going to be different.
“It’s almost like looking at my career. I’m happy where I am and I don’t take it for granted. I have to look at it like that every day.”
The battle is not over
Even as researchers get a better grasp on the virus in their pursuit of a vaccine, and progress is being made on the front lines in the daily battle against COVID-19, Kelly said the days, weeks and months ahead will require vigilance.
“This virus gives us a challenge in that it calls on us a social creatures, to now be anti-social,” he said. “We’ve got to now learn to be social, yet conscious of everybody else’s space…Personal hygiene has to be of the utmost importance. Not only for yourself, but for the individuals around you.
“I’m not completely entrenched in the, ‘We can’t open up now because it’s too soon.’ There is a road toward it, but everybody has to do their part, and if you want to do it sooner than later, everybody has to do their part stringently so that we limit the spread of this thing.”
Those conversations are not only daily occurrences, but Kelly also shares them with his former teammates, many of whom are among the more than two-dozen former FSU track & field athletes in the medical field as doctors, dentists, nurses and the like.
“I love all of my teammates,” said Kelly, who regularly stays in touch through social media with many. “I don’t know if a team could have been closer or more cohesive. It was unreal.”
He looks forward to the day when they can all look back on a pandemic that has run its course.
“It’s a disease that affects those that are infirmed the worst, because there are those of us that probably had it and don’t even realize that we had it,” Kelly said. “If it continues to spread like that it will be ubiquitous in the population and be a non-issue, but until then, everybody has to do their part.”