From Polio to COVID — the Evolution of Intensive Care

Listen 47:41

The modern ICU, or Intensive Care Unit, was born out of a time of crisis. It was 1952, and polio was raging in many places — especially the city of Copenhagen. Patients poured into the hospitals, many of them gasping for air, turning blue, and eventually dying. Then a brilliant doctor tried a radically different approach — pumping air directly into patients’ lungs. It was an idea that would require intensive manpower, but save many lives. And it led to the birth of a new kind of medicine: intensive care.

Seventy years later, ICUs sit at the cutting edge of modern medicine. They’re the destination for the sickest patients — including those who’re hovering at death’s door — and home to some of medicine’s most profound interventions. ICUs can be a place of pain and healing, of comfort and dying, a laboratory for innovation, or a sanctuary for grieving families.

On this episode, we take a look at intensive care — its roots, what it’s like to work there, and how the coronavirus pandemic has changed it.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • Journalist Daniel Semo tells the story of anesthesiologist Bjorn Ibsen — the brilliant doctor who ushered in a new era in medicine.
  • We talk with Haney Mallemat, a critical care physician at Cooper Medical Center at Rowan University, about what drew him to intensive care, making life-and-death decisions, and dealing with the lingering trauma of COVID-19.
  • Reporter Jad Sleiman talks with Nirav Shah, an ICU doctor at the University of Maryland Medical Center, about the strange, sometimes one-sided relationships doctors develop with their unconscious patients … and one patient he will never forget.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal