March 12, 2021

New York City, March 2020: One year later, frontline workers remember a tragic month

Daily Briefing

    One year after the World Health Organization (WHO) officially designated the Covid-19 crisis a pandemic, two health care providers in New York—an ED doctor and an EMT—are sharing their memories of what it was like treating patients amid America's first surge.

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    The ED doctor who diagnosed New York's first Covid-19 case

    On March 1, 2020—just five months into her first post-residency job, and a mere 10 days before WHO declared the pandemic—Angela Chen, an emergency medicine doctor at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, diagnosed the city's first confirmed Covid-19 case.

    The way Chen remembers that spring, it was a haze of confusion, fear, and exhaustion as she and other frontline workers scrambled to find personal protective equipment (PPE) and segregate Covid-19 patients from others in the hospital—even as so much about the virus remained unknown. 

    "There was this real fear that if I don't do this correctly, if I don't put on this PPE correctly, if there's a break in the gown and the glove, if a small particle of virus lands on me, who knows what could happen," she said.

    In fact, Chen said she was so fearful that she might inadvertently bring the virus home to her one-year-old son that she sent him to stay with her parents, where he remained for four months.

    "Four months in a one-year-old's life is almost half of the time he's been alive," she said. "We weren't able to be around for his first steps, we missed the first time he talked, and it's something that, sadly, we'll never be able to get back."

    But of all the memories she has from March, Chen said some of the strongest are the sounds of ventilator alarms beeping. "The amount of tragedy and death that we saw—nothing in my training prepared me for it," she said.

    Chen said she's been trying to appreciate the moments of humanity she witnessed amid her work. In particular, she vividly remembers reaching out to the family of a patient who was near death in the ICU.

    "We set up a FaceTime [call], and they brought their phone to her favorite childhood beach," Chen said. "They were able to say goodbye to her. They were able to kind of recount the memories from when they were together as children. And she took her last breaths to the waves crashing on the sand."

    Chen added, "Those moments of humanity are the ones I have the most clarity on, in this phase of my life that I've almost tried to repress."

    The 'terrible blessing' of being an EMT in New York during the first Covid-19 surge

    Writing in the New York Times, Jennifer Murphy, an EMT with the Park Slope Volunteer Ambulance Corps in Brooklyn, shared her own experiences about what it was like to be a first responder in the city at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

    During the spring, 911 calls "surged beyond the volume on the day of the Sept. 11 attacks," Murphy wrote. "Dispatchers sent EMTs and medics on back-to-back runs for 'sick fever cough,' the new designation being used for patients with Covid-19 symptoms."

    But soon the calls turned into "83R" and "83D" calls, Murphy recalled—"codes for dead after resuscitation initiated and for dead on arrival"—and the sounds of coughing patients were "replaced by the agonized wails of inconsolable family members."

    Amid this overwhelming stress and danger, emergency medical services workers in the New York City Fire Department between January and August 2020 were 14 times more likely to die than the city's firefighters, Murphy writes, citing a study in the Journal of Emergency Medical Services. She mentions one EMT, John Mondello, who had served in one of the hardest-hit areas of the city and who ultimately died by suicide one week after the height of the pandemic in mid-April—and after just three months on the job.

    "The losses emergency responders witnessed during the godawful spring are beyond what human minds can grasp," she writes. "It's impossible to see my EMS friends without thinking of all the terrible things they've been through in the past year, the doomed choices they've been forced to make, how many patients they've lost—and continue to lose."

    And while Murphy writes that she's welcoming the ongoing vaccine rollout and all the freedom it promises, she considers it a "terrible blessing" to have been "an EMT at a time when the city was in desperate need." She writes, "Many of the people we tried to save died, but many lived. I still feel shaken when I think about those deaths. But I never felt hopeless inside the screaming ambulances that radiated so much light" (Hajek et. al., NPR, 3/11; Murphy, New York Times, 3/11).

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