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Brain injury specialist returns to work at JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute after battling COVID-19

Dr. Richard J. Malone returns to work at the Brain Trauma Unit at Hackensack Meridian JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute in Edison after recovering from COVID-19.PHOTO COURTESY OF HACKENSACK MERIDIAN HEALTH
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Dr. Richard J. Malone returns to work at the Brain Trauma Unit at Hackensack Meridian JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute in Edison after recovering from COVID-19.PHOTO COURTESY OF HACKENSACK MERIDIAN HEALTH

As a brain injury specialist, Richard J. Malone, D.O., does not work directly with patients seeking care for COVID-19, but is inevitably on the frontlines of the battle against the global pandemic.

Malone works in the Brain Trauma Unit at Hackensack Meridian JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute, where for more than 26 years he has treated patients with serious brain injuries and illness.

In March, a stroke patient Malone was treating had an elevated temperature and later tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Another patient with brain trauma also tested positive.

So when Malone woke up on the morning of March 26 with a mild sore throat, headache and chills, he knew a COVID -19 diagnosis was possible, according to information provided by Hackensack Meridian Health.

He had no cough, chest tightness or trouble breathing. But he did have another telltale symptom.

“I had diminished smell and taste,” he said in the statement.

Malone – who specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation and holds a sub-specialty certification in brain injury medicine – self-quarantined in a room in his house in Nutley, according to the statement.

He reached out to Dr. Sara Cuccurullo, vice president and medical director of JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute, and to the institute’s department of Occupational Health. He received a test and on April 1 got a call that he tested positive for COVID-19, according to the statement.

For five days, he battled the symptoms, including fatigue, as his wife and daughter left him food at his door. He quarantined according to U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) protocols and was cleared by Occupational Health to return to work, according to the statement.

“You feel a real sense of urgency to get back and help,” Malone said in the statement. “Other people were covering for me, and I wanted to be there to support my colleagues and our patients.”

The global pandemic is taking a toll on health care workers across the nation. According to the CDC, more than 9,000 have tested positive, though experts say the actual number is far higher.

“It was an inspiration to all of us on the Brain Trauma unit to see Dr. Malone back,” Laura Mularz, director of JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute Nursing and Patient Care Services, said in the statement. “Dr. Malone plays such an instrumental role on the unit, and everyone knows his dedication to his patients. His commitment to being such a thorough physician probably put him at risk.”

“Everybody was worried about him,” said Laura Fazzari, physical therapy supervisor. “We felt a loss when he was out and we were all elated when he returned. In these times, everybody is scared and worried when someone goes out sick.”

Although people who recover from COVID-19 may have some immunity, the science is not yet clear. Dr. Cuccurullo said the need for rehabilitation is emerging as a critical component of recovery for post-COVID patients. Many need rehabilitation for pulmonary pathology, functional deficits and neurologic injuries secondary to the COVID-19 virus. Patients who have spent time dependent on ventilators during their recovery are especially deconditioned and can benefit greatly from a comprehensive pulmonary rehabilitation program, according to the statement.

“We’re grateful for Dr. Malone’s clinical excellence and experience,” Cuccurullo said in the statement. “All of our staff, nurses, therapists, doctors and residents have really put the patients first and put themselves at risk to make sure our patients received the highest level of care. Dr. Malone and every member of our staff have shown tremendous courage and fortitude weathering this crisis.”

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