Brian Levy loved science as a kid. He had a microscope, read up on stuff in the encyclopedia and messed around with home experiment kits. During his high school years, he took every science credit possible. By his own admission, he was a “geek,” one with an equally strong passion, alongside science, for electronics.
Levy knew how to operate a shortwave radio. Weekend teenage heaven, in his mind, was hanging around the local RadioShack store, a warehouse of gizmos where he scored his first part-time job in 1974, earning US$1.40 an hour at a shop in downtown Atlanta. He was 15, which, alas, was too young to be working for the company, according to the folks at corporate headquarters in Texas, who fired him upon receiving his paperwork.
The dismissal didn’t sit well with Levy.
“I actually called the vice president of human resources in Texas,” he says. The executive was impressed by the moxie of the kid. On the day he turned 16, Levy was hired back.
That more or less put the whole medical thing on hold for me
“I really enjoyed being involved in electronics, all the latest technology, and that more or less put the whole medical thing on hold for me,” Levy says.
By “medical thing,” he is referring to going to medical school to become a doctor. By “on hold,” he means, well, on hold, and not for a year or two while he worked the electronics-geek-bug out of his system, but for the next 30 years. A stretch that saw the kid with moxie rocket up the ranks of the company, ultimately becoming its CEO, a position Levy occupied until soon after InterTAN, RadioShack’s parent corporation, was sold, a deal that netted the boss an $11-million (or so) payout.
Levy did not foresee the premature end to his business career. When it came, rather than being crestfallen, he felt liberated, and free to pursue an “itch” that he had always felt the need to scratch. So he applied to medical school at McMaster University in Hamilton, ON. (Levy came to Canada in the first place after relocating RadioShack HQ north of the border as CEO. He is now a dual citizen, although his soft, buttery accent betrays his roots in the American south.)
“I don’t miss being a CEO one bit,” Levy says. “I enjoyed it immensely, when I was doing it. But do I enjoy what I am doing now? The answer is, immensely.”
Brian Levy, MD, was talking about his unusual career path with a reporter, via a socially-distanced phone call, on an April afternoon after wrapping up an overnight shift in the Emergency Department at Brampton Civic Hospital, northwest of Toronto. Brampton Civic is among the busiest emergency departments in Canada. The former CEO initially fancied becoming a psychiatrist, given all his years managing people, but he realized early on in medical school that he was more of a generalist, not to mention a Type-A, adrenaline-junky.
“Emergency medicine is a perfect fit for my personality,” he says.
Like the rest of humanity, Levy did not foresee COVID-19 crashing into Earth. Encountering the virus now, as a frontline physician, has been “surreal.” Emergency docs are go-getters by nature. In pre-pandemic days, when a critical case came rolling through the department’s doors, Levy would come swooping in like “superman,” to save the day.
But there is no more swooping now. The department is eerily quiet, preparing for an expected surge in COVID-19 cases. Patients arriving, under Levy’s watch, are often in cardio-respiratory distress. Levy can’t just rush to them. Everything he does has to be methodical. One misstep on a physician’s part, say, touching a surface with a bare hand or sipping from a water bottle, risks contaminating the entire department.
“Our training tells us to immediately come into the room,” Levy says. “But each of us is much more conscious now, literally, of every surface we have touched — and being properly gowned — because, as you can imagine, people don’t come in here with a diagnosis stamped on their forehead.”
Before walking into a room with a suspected COVID-19 case, doctors get decked out like astronauts, in face shields and masks. What has been especially difficult, Levy says, are the diminished options available for treating people with the virus. Typically, when someone is having difficulty breathing, doctors give them oxygen. If they continue to have difficulty, the next step is often to hook them up to a CPAP machine, like those used to treat sleep apnea.
CPAPs are non-invasive measures for people still able to breath on their own. In the COVID-19 era, they are also potential sources of contamination, ruling them out as treatment options. That person having trouble breathing, who isn’t responding to simple oxygen, has but one hope: Being put on life support in a medically induced coma.
“It is a difficult situation for the family, and it is certainly not what we would like to do,” Levy says. “Any time you get to the point of life support with a patient, there is a certain amount of risk involved.”
There is also a certain amount of risk involved in being a doctor in a dangerous time. Dozens of physicians worldwide have succumbed to the virus. Levy isn’t old, but he isn’t 40 anymore. He is 61. He and his wife, Angela, have been married for 38 years. They have two children, and plenty of money in the bank.
Levy does not need to be working an overnight shift to make ends meet, or even working — period. But retirement would not be a good fit. Levy studies medicine for fun. He also watches football and plays with flight simulator games. To decompress after a shift, he cranks oldies on the car radio. He is still an electronics geek.
As dissimilar as his two careers may seem — saving lives vs. selling stuff — there are a few commonalities. Back when Levy was running RadioShack, he had a message he conveyed to the troops.
“I used to say, “You got to bring your A-game to work every day, and your A-game always has to be a little bit better than it was the day before,” he says.
Levy has been bringing his A-game to Brampton Civic for a decade now. Amid a frightening time fraught with uncertainty, with every indication things are about to get worse, there is no place he would rather be.
“I probably told my wife ten thousand times that I wanted to be a doctor before I became a doctor,” he says. “I am just one of those people who was very fortunate, where things worked out, and where I could do not just one thing I really enjoyed in life, but two.”