Dr. Jordan Anderson seldom lacked for challenges during a swimming career that took him to the highest levels of college sports.
Anderson, a graduate of Hidden Valley High School, was a member of two NCAA championship swim teams at Auburn University.
While challenges continue, the stakes nowadays are much higher.
It’s a matter of life and death in his current undertaking.
“It’s crazy times, absolutely,” said Anderson, a physician at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston, where he recently worked a 30-hour shift at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Following his 2009 graduation from Auburn, Anderson was named a Rhodes Scholar, Auburn’s first since 1980. After two years at Oxford, he enrolled at Harvard Medical School, where he graduated in 2018.
Now 32, he currently serves as an internal medicine resident at Brigham & Women’s, where his particular field includes infectious diseases, as well as pulmonary care.
“We run the intensive care units that our COVID patients are in,” he said. “We also take care of the COVID patients who are not in the ICU but are still admitted to the hospital.
“Our residency program has completely transformed in response to the crisis.”
On a normal day, Anderson heads to the hospital at 6:30 p.m. and huddles with the day team to become up to date on the current patients’ particular needs.
“Many of the patients are not doing well,” said Anderson, explaining that breathing machines do most of the work of the lungs. “It’s really sad and pretty devastating, talking to a lot of patients, which a lot of families can’t.
“Our hospital has a policy, like a lot of hospitals, where patients’ families are not able to come and see them. So, there’s also a moral distress component to this, which is pretty difficult.”
This pathogen, a general term for viruses, was scarcely on the epidemiologist’s radar.
“We always think about ‘how transmissible are they and how easily do they spread,’” Anderson said, “and then how virulent or dangerous are they?
“This pathogen is particularly interesting because it spreads relatively easily, not as quickly as, let’s say, measles, but it’s also quite dangerous for a lot of people.
“That kind of combination of spreading quite easily, but also being quite dangerous, is unique relative to many other pathogens.”
When Anderson returns home at any and all hours, it’s to see his wife, Katie, and their 6-month-old son, Rowan.
Katie Anderson is also in the medical field, and is currently the chief physician assistant in the surgical breast oncology division at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women’s.
“I’m pretty anxious when I’m in the hospital about my own risk and then about bringing that risk home to my wife and son,” Jordan said.
Through Monday afternoon, the Center for Disease Control’s COVID-19 data tracker reporting 6,372 deaths in Massachusetts from the coronavirus — only New York and New Jersey have reported more deaths.
Some health-care workers also have been affected, but the fallout was considerably less than some had expected. Anderson attributes much of that to precautions that were taken.
“When patients are on ventilators, the ventilators basically create a closed circuit so they’re not breathing the virus into the air,” he said.
“It’s many of the nurses who are spending the most time at a bedside with these patients and are at a much higher risk, possibly, than the physicians, who pop in and head off to another part of the hospital that’s more safe.”
Anderson is somewhat confident — and, obviously, hopeful — that a needed vaccine or multiple vaccines will be developed.
“The timeline for that is less certain,” he said. “Optimistically, it would be late 2020 or early 2021. Pessimistically, it’s probably more like three or four years.
“In the meantime, the hope from a public health standpoint is that communities or society are able to abide by a lot of the basic public-health measures like hand hygiene, social distancing and wearing masks that will help them reduce the spread.
“I think we’re going to continue to see deaths going up, but seeing hospitalizations and new infections going down is an optimistic sign that our public-health efforts are working.”
It doesn’t help the health professionals that the pandemic has coincided with a presidential campaign.
“I find it incredibly frustrating, to be honest,” Anderson said. “It’s being felt in ways that are not the same throughout the country. That’s the challenge, politically, for people to wrestle with.
“I think the media has done a pretty good job to expose many parts of America to what’s happened in many of the cities where the outbreaks are happening. I don’t want to be too political, but I think it’s been a hard thing for many physicians.”
Anderson has been a tough competitor dating back to his days growing up in Roanoke County, where he was chosen Timesland boys swimmer of the year in 2006.
“There’s lessons that I learned from my parents and, as a swimmer and athlete, a lot of it was just perseverance and other adversity,” he said. “This has been like a lot of days when I didn’t want to show up for practice.