The day in late 2020 Bob Senzig thought would be his last is still a haze and probably always will be. He remembers a doctor at a hospital in the resort town of Los Cabos, Mexico, talking on the phone with the crew of a medical evacuation jet coming to take him back home, to an emergency room at a U.S. hospital. But to get on board, he was told, the 66-year-old GE retiree would have to be intubated, a procedure that would require him to be unconscious. Make your phone calls quickly, the doctor told him. He recalls speaking to his mother and son, then leaving a voicemail for his wife. He couldn’t concentrate. He couldn’t breathe. Then everything went blank.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that some 146 million Americans have been infected with COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, and over 920,000 have died as of early January. Experience, vaccines, and new treatments have helped dampen the toll, but the coronavirus still can be a dangerous foe. When things take a turn for the worse, surviving the disease can require an almost absurd combination of resources and resolve from clinicians and patients alike.
Senzig woke up six weeks after he was airlifted from Cabo in a Phoenix hospital. He was so weak that even picking up an iPad seemed impossible. He needed months of care before he could walk and talk again. Documenting his ordeal in a log called “Bob’s Covid Adventure,” today he’s well enough to resume ballroom dancing. And although he has kept his sense of humor, he is serious about one thing: Doctors and nurses are performing superhuman feats to save COVID patients from death. “Some people still feel this isn’t a real thing,” he says.
Senzig knows how complicated saving a life can be. Up until his retirement, he served as chief engineer at GE Healthcare’s Computed Tomography (CT) division. Over a career spanning 36 years, he was involved in much of the innovation and progress CT imaging has made. That includes GE’s recent acquisition of Prismatic Sensors, a Swedish startup whose technology promises to revolutionize the field once again.
Raised in Racine, Wisconsin, Senzig helped out on his grandparents’ dairy farm as a kid and studied mechanical engineering in nearby Milwaukee. In 1982, he joined GE Healthcare in Waukesha, down the Lake Michigan shore, and started working on CT machines, which use radiation to image the human body. At the time, CT was still relatively slow, and radiologists stored images on magnetic tapes and floppy disks. Over the years, Senzig helped introduce many advances that made CT scanners faster and ubiquitous.
Senzig rose through the ranks to become chief engineer in 2001, mentoring scientists and engineers around the world. When he retired in 2018, he held 46 U.S. patents and his name appeared on many research publications.
Senzing kept busy even in retirement. He and a former colleague were looking for a way to 3D-print personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers when another friend invited Senzig and his wife join him for a brief trip to Mexico in November 2020. The friend was scheduled for a major surgery after the trip and Senzig agreed to go.
Senzig and his wife tested negative for COVID-19 before getting on the plane, but by the time they landed, he was already feeling ill. He had a headache and a cough when he was admitted to a local hospital. His blood-oxygen level dropped and he struggled to breathe. Beset by brain fog that made it difficult to follow even simple instructions, he texted his PPE collaborator and told him he needed to leave Mexico or he would die. Senzig knew he was fighting a severe case of COVID and that he would have to be intubated during the trip. But he decided he had to take the risk. “I was very conflicted as to what to do,” he says. “I was terrified.”
Still, even in the gloom of the moment, Senzig found something to cheer him up. The hospital staff imaged his lungs on a CT scanner he had helped design and make affordable. “It was good to see a familiar ‘face’ when I was so sick,” he says.
While Senzig was unconscious and intubated, his 3D-printing collaborator and former GE colleague had put the $25,000 air ambulance cost on his own credit card and negotiated getting Senzig through customs and into an ICU bed. By the time Senzig awoke in Phoenix in mid-December, he had lost 65 pounds and was breathing through a tracheotomy tube.
He learned that doctors, nurses and ventilator technicians had fought for weeks to save him, and friends and family had stayed in constant contact with the medical team and one another. A website set up to raise funds for Senzig drew donations from more than 200 people around the world, many of them former GE colleagues.
A few weeks later, Senzig was home and breathing on his own again, albeit using a walker to get around. He would go through months of physical, voice and occupational therapy and medical checkups. Clinicians even used another CT scanner he helped develop to assess the damage to his lungs.
Today, Senzig is vaccinated and back at his favorite hobby: ballroom dancing. He’s grateful to the staff who kept him alive, to his friends and family who watched over his condition while he was in the hospital and to the GE colleagues who supported him throughout his ordeal. He wonders if the ventilator that kept him alive was one that GE employee volunteers produced in its production surge early in the pandemic back home in Wisconsin.
Senzig and his friend published their PPE designs online for anyone to use, although, with vaccines now widely available, he thinks they’ll be of use only in a future epidemic. He’s also published accounts of his experience on social media to raise awareness of both the dangers of COVID and the doctors and nurses who deal with the damage it does. None of it, he says, feels like enough: “How do I say thank you to the healthcare workers who helped me? The best way to help reduce the pressure on the healthcare system is to get vaccinated.”