The beeping was constant.
In the chaos of rushing between ICU patients and making critical decisions on the spot, calls flooded Marco Uribe’s (Soc’12) pager.
People desperate for an update on their mother, father, spouse. Needing to know — unable to see or speak to them — their conditions.
Marco had to explain on the phone to families that their loved one was dying from the COVID-19 virus, sometimes being forced to ask if their ventilator could go to someone else with a higher probability of surviving.
“Many nights I stay up thinking about those conversations with families.”
One shift, he became overwhelmed. He slipped into an empty room in the Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx, New York, to call the person he needed to speak to most — his wife, Whitney Lewis Uribe (Jour’12).
“I remember him calling me completely shaken, asking, ‘How do I even ask a family to answer this question?’” Whitney said.
Marco added, “Many nights I stay up thinking about those conversations with families.”
It was March 2020 and Marco was three months away from completing his first year of residency through the CU School of Medicine’s advanced anesthesiology program. The residency includes three years of specialized training after completing an intern year. CU assigned Marco to a hospital system in the Bronx for his intern year, which began in June 2019.
“New York was definitely a surprise for us,” said Whitney.
But as the pandemic ripped through the city, the couple realized they were exactly where they were supposed to be. New York was an experience to learn, grow and lean on each other — just as they had for the past 12 years.
Marco and Whitney met in August 2008 during freshman move-in day at CU Boulder. Marco was coming from Austin, Texas, to start a pre-med track, and Whitney from Steamboat Springs, Colorado, to study journalism. They were on the same floor in Hallett Hall.
“We both caught each other’s eye,” said Whitney.
When Marco’s mom and sister, Marisa, came to visit for Homecoming, he solicited Marisa to invite Whitney to join them at a family tailgate — and 13-year-old Marisa was very insistent.
“The litmus was how Whitney interacted with my little sister, who had special needs,” Marco said. “When I saw that she treated Marisa with love and respect, I knew she had a big heart.”
As their relationship developed, Whitney learned how special Marisa was and how much she meant to Marco. Doctors diagnosed her with brain cancer as an infant, and the chemotherapy and radiation she underwent until age 5 stunted her neurological development and altered her hormonal balance.
“She had an extra big capacity to love everyone around her,” said Whitney.
“She was my reason to go into medicine,” Marco said.
After graduating from CU in 2012, Marco applied to medical schools while he skied, fly-fished and waited tables in Colorado. Whitney moved to Los Angeles to work for an entertainment production company. They dated long-distance.
In 2013, Marco was accepted to medical school at the University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio. After a year and a half, Whitney joined him in Texas to work in the nonprofit sector. They were engaged near the Flatirons during a trip to Boulder in 2015, which is where they had their first date.
In Marco’s second year of medical school, Marisa was diagnosed with colon cancer. The couple put their lives on hold to spend time with her. She died in September 2016 at 21 years old.
“We leaned on each other a lot during that time,” said Whitney. “We grew closer.”
Focusing on his studies was “a serious challenge” during that period, Marco said, but after some time off and Whitney’s support, he continued with medical school.
Marco and Whitney married in July 2017 in Steamboat Springs. Two years later, Marco graduated and pursued residency options. CU’s advanced anesthesiology program at the Anschutz campus was his top choice.
“Anesthesia really came to me,” said Marco. “When Marisa was really sick, an anesthesiologist gave her an epidural catheter which greatly helped in managing her pain so we could spend quality time together. It gave me some of the most cherished time with my sister.”
After Marco was accepted into CU and subsequently assigned to New York, the couple — both 29 years old at the time — rented a 500-square-foot apartment in Manhattan and moved in with their 65-pound wirehaired griffon, Rooster.
Whitney volunteered for a childhood cancer research organization and trained to get her certification in Pilates. Marco worked in the general surgery department at a hospital system in the Bronx, where many units were understaffed and overwhelmed before the pandemic.
“It was sink-or-swim kind of training,” Marco said.
“I’d go to the emergency department and ask colleagues, ‘What do you think of this COVID thing? Are we prepared?’”
The COVID Tidal Wave
Marco first heard of COVID-19 in December.
“It was something we knew was out there but hadn’t been completely studied. There didn’t seem to be anything concrete,” he said. “In January it became more of a discussion.”
In February things seemed different.
“I’d go to the emergency department and ask colleagues, ‘What do you think of this COVID thing? Are we prepared?’” Marco recalled. “They said it’s coming and it’s going to hit us like a tidal wave.”
Marco prepared to dive in.
“I remember the day when he came home and he said this is going to be really hard and a lot of people are going to die,” Whitney said. “I stopped watching the news. I needed to match his fearless energy because he was now going to be seeing this firsthand.”
Marco volunteered to work in his hospital’s ICU doing critical care for COVID-19 patients. He started work at 5:30 a.m. and sometimes wouldn’t return home until 9 p.m. or later. Whitney remembers giving him protein shakes often as he was too exhausted to eat.
“Eight hours of sleep minus the commute time wasn’t a lot, but it was worth going home,” Marco said. “I would change out of scrubs in the hallway, take my shoes off, put those scrubs in a bag, go straight to the laundry and take a shower.”
By the end of March, the entire hospital and every ICU floor was overflowing, and ventilators were running sparse. While attending physicians frantically tried to obtain supplies, staff and space for dying patients, the residents helped run the ICUs.
“I quickly learned how to serve my patients as a critical care physician,” Marco said.
Whitney helped him create talking points for difficult conversations with families.
Despite it all, Marco knew he was where he was supposed to be.
“This is why we go into medicine,” he said. “This is our call.”
In mid-April, Marco — wearing a CU Boulder lanyard — was featured on CBS News wheeling a recovered patient out of the hospital to his family.
“I would have wanted to be in the fight whether or not I was in New York,” Marco said. “The fact that I was there by luck — I thank God for the experience.”
Return to Colorado
At the end of June, the couple moved from New York to a historic house in the Berkeley neighborhood of Denver.
“Every time we move to a new city it feels like a new chapter,” Whitney said. “We trust what is in store for us, good or bad.”
Whitney sought out an advertising position and is continuing her volunteer work in childhood cancer research. In July, Marco began the second year of his residency at CU's medical campus, focused once again on anesthesiology.
But, he added, “We’re excited for whatever could come next.”
Photos by Matt Tyrie; Courtesy CBS News (bottom)