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Volunteering to Help in the New York COVID-19 Response

“In early April 2020 I served as a NY Medical Reserve Corps volunteer at Lincoln Medical Center in the primarily Black and Brown South Bronx. In April the S. Bronx fatality rate was 1.5 times that of Manhattan residents. The #COVID19 pandemic placed a magnifying glass on the role of intersection of race, ethnicity, and socioecomonic class on health care disparities.

I volunteered because my skills as a physician, albeit an orthopaedic surgeon, were a scarce resource at the height of the pandemic in NYC. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo sent urgent alerts for all medical professionals, including retirees, to volunteer and address critical staffing shortages. During 9/11, I volunteered as an NYU Medical Student identifying and organizing human remains at the NYC Office of the Chief Medical Examiner’s office. I felt a similar calling to help in the NY COVID19 response.

Nearly a decade out from residency training, I had not directly cared for critically ill patients in some time. The camaraderie and crowdsourcing from critical care colleagues on social media and otherwise was outstanding. Treating a critically ill COVID positive patient is incredibly humbling and counterintuitive. 

As an orthopaedic surgeon, I seek to improve or resolve patient’s complaints. To paraphrase a common meme, “It’s broken, and I fix it.” The goal of the COVID19 response at that time was to evaluate, treat, and triage multiple critically ill or soon-to-be critically ill patients in the setting of limited resources (PPE, beds, and time).

On a more personal note, my sister’s husband Ezekiel “Zeke’ Cousins died at 46 years old on 4/10/2020 of COVID19 multisystem organ failure (heart, lungs, liver, kidneys). He was under the top care team in the Burn ICU at NY Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell Medical Center. Every mechanism and treatment available were given to Zeke. He had over 10 IV Pumps running at that time. My sister and I were fortunate enough to be allowed in Zeke’s ICU room to say goodbye. Kathia held his hand as he transitioned after she allowed comfort care.

New York City in April had medical centers with adjacent white freezer trucks. The freezers were sent to offload morgues filled to capacity with COVID19 victims. Funeral homes were not accepting new families, and crematoriums were “backed up” until late May. I had to call a childhood friend who runs his family’s Harlem funeral home to get Zeke a memorial service and cremation date. Planning and executing a funeral amidst at NY Shelter-In-Place mandate and social distancing was a near impossible feat. But we did it.

Prior to the height of the COVID19 pandemic in New York, I was busy being busy. I did not prioritize what is most valuable to me – the health and well-being of my family and myself. In March 2020, COVID19 shut one of the most vibrant cities in the world, NY City, down completely. I am now laser focused on the health and wellness of my son, parents, and siblings. We nearly lost my father in mid-May to COVID19 heart-related complaints. I’m grateful that he is recovering and improving each day at home.

COVID19 has also reminded me of the dignity in dying. It was as gift for my sister to hold Zeke’s hand as he took his last breaths. Many families did not have that chance. Our society has mechanisms to comfort a grieving family – wake/viewing, memorial service, and the repast. COVID19 stole that from our family. Zeke’s memorial service had 5 attendees (the limit was 8 people), and another 435 virtually on zoom. His co-workers/union friends lined their Verizon vans outside the funeral home double parked spanning 5 city blocks. They could not enter the funeral home.

COVID19 has allowed me to appreciate awakening each day with healthy family and friends. Amidst this incredible loss, I see the opportunity to reset our society to become more just and equitable for all.”

Written by Haydée Brown, MD