They don’t wear capes. But they do have masks.
Doctors left their private practices to help staff emergency rooms and intensive care units. Nurses held the hands of dying patients too contagious to see their family members. At some nursing homes, employees continued to work even as the outbreak spread among residents and staff alike.
In this special tribute section, we share the stories of some of the many caregivers and medical professionals across the state who have fought COVID-19 on the front lines since March in a variety of roles across the health care spectrum. While enduring unprecedented risk and falling sick themselves in record numbers, these real-life masked crusaders rose to the historic challenges of these times.
This section is dedicated to all of them in Connecticut and beyond. It is, as Albert Camus wrote in The Plague, a small record of what “had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never-ending fight against terror … by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.”
Profiled health care workers:
Emergency physician, Hartford Hospital
by Mike Wollschlager
“I hope this is a call to arms about the fact that we need to advocate for ourselves as a group of people who are on the front lines.”
In addition to being an emergency physician at Hartford Hospital, Dr. Shawn London is also the residency director for emergency medicine. He says there’s a certain rhythm to the year, and he was trucking along this spring and recruiting new residents to the program when all hell started to break loose. “Since we didn’t really have an active surveillance program,” London says, “it just went from a remote curiosity to ‘oh boy’ pretty quickly.”
London says he’s been in close contact with COVID-19 patients on a daily basis since March. Before then a normal day would consist of treating a gunshot wound, motorcycle accident or heart attack. “I know it sounds weird, but there’s more certainty about what you’re facing when you’re going into work because you’re like, oh yeah, it’s COVID,” London says. “There’s a lot of acuity and a lot of challenges, but there’s more of a narrow spectrum of what we’re dealing with.”
No matter how narrow the spectrum, the potential treatments and outcomes are anything but. “The book isn’t going to be written on this for a year or two at the earliest,” London says. The tricky part now is doctors are flying in uncharted territory while simultaneously trying to reassure patients with a treatment plan. “It’s time to go out of your way to make patients feel comfortable and taken care of in a situation that is really hard because of the social distancing and hospitals not having family members there,” London says. “In other ways it’s given us the opportunity to be inventive.”
Working with a 3D printer started out as a hobby for London a few years ago, but it’s gotten more connected to his work because of his role as a residency director. He uses it to create models to simulate procedures — a piece of equipment may cost $20,000, then gets destroyed from students learning to use it. “Some I’ve designed on my own, but there’s this amazing open-source medical community where people will share their designs,” London says. “You can print it for under 50 cents and if it gets used 10 times and gets destroyed, it’s like so what. You print another one.”
That experience came in handy when London started to realize PPE supplies could be in jeopardy and masks would be needed. He credited Hartford HealthCare’s depth of supplies for providing enough time to build the masks with his 3D printer. “There was stuff that was just scary coming out,” London says. “The CDC said if you run out of masks you could use a bandanna; stuff you know is just not going to do anything.”
London says distributing the masks to his colleagues was an unexpected morale builder after the scary realization that the federal government did not have their backs. “We’re not going to be the people who are wrapping pillow cases around our face,” London says. Just having the masks would have been enough, but London improved the design in both protection and comfort. Because masks need to be worn tightly, the elastics would “chew up” the backs of people’s ears after a 12-hour shift. A modification to an open-source design took care of that. And face shields that cover and protect N95 masks allow that critical supply to be stretched.
“Being focused on the patient is really important,” London says, “but I hope this is a call to arms a little bit about the fact that we need to watch out for ourselves, and advocate for ourselves as a group of people who are on the front lines. Because we’re maybe taking it for granted that we’re going to be looked out for.
“I think the people who have really had our backs are a lot of our local leadership. There are things that you would think would have come to pass on a federal level, and we would have had more help, but a lot of these things are falling to the medical leadership of my hospital and my department director, who have stepped in and have the ingenuity to put things together to keep us safe. I guess that’s disarming, but I see it as a wake-up call.”
Internist who transferred to COVID floor, UConn Health, Farmington
By Erik Ofgang
“It’s hard to see these patients struggle and to be anxious, and then just to have to leave them alone.”
Early on in the outbreak, UConn Health asked for volunteers from its medical staff to move to its hospital and help handle the influx of COVID-19 patients. For Dr. Saira Cherian, a UConn Health internist who worked primarily in an out-patient setting, the decision to move to working with coronavirus patients was an easy one. “I went into medicine because I want to help and serve, and I felt a strong calling as soon as this happened,” she says. “I was just drawn to wanting to be in-patient and taking care of these patients.”
Ever since making that decision, Cherian, who lives in West Hartford and grew up in Norwich, has worked on the “COVID floor” at UConn Health. Her duties include assessing whether patients have the virus or not, and then transferring those who test positive to pressure-controlled rooms.
Despite volunteering for this role, she has not been blind to the risk, especially since her in-laws are living with her. She says that working closely with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients has been anxiety inducing. But this fear for herself and family has paled in comparison to the challenges of trying to confront this new disease.
“Because it’s a novel virus, one of the struggles we have is that we don’t really know how to treat it,” she says. “There’s a lot of guesswork, which is not typical of medicine. We usually are very evidence based and scientific in everything we do.”
As a result, the way they are treating the disease at UConn Health has been constantly evolving.
“Initially we were treating everybody with the hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin combination,” she says. “And now they’re showing that maybe that’s not really what we should be doing. If patients are coming in with obvious pneumonia we should maybe lean more toward the azithromycin, and if they’re just coming in without any X-ray or CT findings lean more toward the Plaquenil [a brand name for hydroxychloroquine].”
But Cherian expects these new guidelines to change in the future.
As she’s worked with more patients who have had the disease, she says that she’s learned to trust what she sees. Now, if a patient has coronavirus symptoms and has been exposed, she’ll treat that patient as though they have coronavirus, even if their test comes back negative initially. The tests are known to produce some false negatives, by some accounts, 30 percent of the time.
Even with all these other challenges, the most difficult part about treating this disease for Cherian has been watching patients suffer alone.
“These patients are not allowed to have visitors, so they’re sick, they’re short of breath, which is very scary for them and they don’t have the comfort of seeing their family members, or having their loved ones in their room,” she says. “Normally if someone doesn’t have family, I would take an extra few minutes, or sit with them and hold their hand. But in this case we’re told we have to spend as little time as possible in the room physically with them, because we’re trying to limit our exposure. So it’s hard to see these patients struggle and to be anxious, and then just to have to leave them alone.”
Residential program worker at an Oak Hill group home
By Erik Ofgang
”We’re exhausted. Everybody wants to go back to normal.”
Yvonne Ellis knows as well as anyone the terrible toll COVID-19 can take. On March 21 her mother, Shirley Parisi, was among the earliest to die of the disease in Virginia.
Ellis traveled from her home in Ashford to be with her at the end and both Ellis and one of her sisters were allowed in the hospital, but not into the isolation room where their mother spent her final moments. “We watched her die through glass,” Ellis says.
Back in Connecticut, as the pandemic progressed through the state and country, Ellis didn’t have the luxury of staying home. A residential program worker, she belongs to an all-too-often-overlooked category of essential worker: those who care for people with intellectual disabilities.
She works for Oak Hill at a group home in Coventry with four residents with intellectual disabilities who require 24-hour care. Though she and her co-workers wear protective gear and social distance, such concepts can’t be conveyed to the residents of the house. “They don’t understand that they have to keep 6 feet apart,” she says, and none of them will wear masks. Group outings have been canceled, as have trips home and visits from family members.
“The clients are really affected. They do really well on a schedule and now it’s hard for them because they’re not on a schedule,” Ellis says. “They can’t see their parents. We have one girl that goes home every weekend. We have another one whose mother comes every Sunday.”
That was before the coronavirus. Although the virus has not spread to the home she works at, Ellis is wary. She notes that even though her clients are unable to wash or feed themselves, those who work at the facility are not considered “essential health care workers.” Ellis wants that to change. Though her company just gave workers a $2-an-hour, hazard-pay raise, she says federal recognition would help them obtain things like PPE and cleaning supplies. “You would like to have a face shield if someone is coughing in your face. You would like to have facemasks that are not so thin you can see your hand through them,” Ellis says. “We’re running out of hand sanitizer.”
Ellis started in the field 30 years ago because she has a sister who now lives in a group home. “I had been raised with someone who had mental disabilities. I wasn’t afraid of it. I wasn’t put off by it.” She adds, “I love the clients.”
In addition to pushing for those who do what she does to get designation as essential health care workers, Ellis wants the same thing everyone else wants. ”We’re exhausted. Everybody wants to go back to normal,” she says. Unfortunately, she doesn’t expect that to happen anytime soon.
Paramedic and emergency department nurse
By Theresa Sullivan Barger
“We had a lovely elderly woman. Her daughter realized she was going to get sicker. The two of them saying goodbye to each other brought tears to my eyes.”
In the time of COVID-19, people wait as long as they can before calling 911. So when paramedic Shannon Harvill arrives to bring them to the hospital, they’re quite sick.
“You have a patient with a 911 emergency. It’s the worst day of their life. You suspect they’re a COVID-19 patient. They’re elderly and they’re going to wind up at the hospital alone. They have family with them that they may not see again. The family realizes they may not see them again. It’s heartbreaking.
“I encourage them to bring a smartphone with a charger. That’s not something we did before,” says the Simsbury resident, who works part time for the Simsbury Volunteer Ambulance Association and part time as an emergency department nurse at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford.
“You get the sense of who is going to do well and who is not going to do well. Just the look in everyone’s eyes — very expressive, very sad. We try to [allow families time to say goodbye]. We had a lovely elderly woman. Her daughter realized she was going to get sicker. The two of them saying goodbye to each other brought tears to my eyes,” she says, her voice breaking. “You could see they were both frightened and trying to give each other reassurance. The daughter was saying, ‘I’m going to call you.’ … This disease is scary.”
Harvill strives to reassure patients while addressing their health needs. At the same time, the married mother with two college-age sons at home takes every precaution to keep herself from getting COVID-19 or bringing it home to her family.
Like her co-workers, she assumes every patient has COVID-19, so she wears an N95 mask covered by a surgical mask and a cloth mask that she can wash; a gown, a second layer of gloves and a hood. If she’s giving the patient oxygen, she dons a plastic face shield. It’s hard for patients to hear and understand her, she says, making her assessments even more challenging.
“You feel like you’re talking into a cup. Imagine you’re trying to assess a patient and they’re hard of hearing,” she says. “The N95 fits so well, you’re not able to articulate as well. You have to speak louder. I say to patients, ‘I’m speaking loud so you can hear me.’
“I say to people, ‘I know I have a lot of funny stuff on my face. My name is Shannon. I’m a paramedic taking you to the hospital because you or your family said you weren’t feeling well. Do you understand me?’ ” She explains that she’s wearing the personal protective equipment to protect them from her and her from them.
She and her colleagues thought they were prepared and well stocked for the coronavirus; after receiving a notification from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January about the “Wuhan virus,” they checked their supplies. “We felt we had what we needed before we realized, ‘Wow, this is expanding to numbers we never imagined,’ ” she says.
After work, she sprays her shoes with disinfectant and wipes down her car’s interior. She undresses in the garage, puts her clothes in a laundry basket, puts on a nightgown and brings the laundry directly to the washing machine. She takes a shower, adds the towel to the load and washes it on “high.”
“I get up every morning, I check my temperature and in the evening before dinner, I check again,” she says. She wears a mask in the house, stays 6 feet from her husband and sons, and avoids cooking and unloading the dishwasher. “I want to give them a hug and ask, ‘How did your day go?’ … I haven’t hugged them in a month,” she says during an interview in April.
Her husband, a physician in another hospital working night shifts, sleeps in the guest room using a spare bathroom.
To deal with the stress, she rides a stationary bike daily. Her family watches movies or Jeopardy! together. She and her husband talk about their sons and their work, supporting each other. Talking with co-workers helps, she says.
She worries “all the time” about her husband or herself getting COVID-19. “I’ve lost sleep over it. That’s why I really take my time getting my stuff on,” she says. “Even though it’s uncomfortable and hot, it’s necessary to keep me safe.”
Respiratory therapist, The Hospital of Central Connecticut, New Britain
By Theresa Sullivan Barger
“We’re seeing households coming in. Husbands and wives coming in with the same admission date and diagnosis — COVID-19.”
Kelly Conlon felt like she was in a science fiction movie. The respiratory therapist was working in the Intensive Care Unit at The Hospital of Central Connecticut in New Britain during the peak of COVID-19 cases. “I’ve never, in my 27 years, had 20 ventilators running at the same time with the same diagnosis,” she says. She’s also never had so many patients die.
“It’s stressful. It’s heartbreaking. It’s sad,” she says. “It’s so difficult, just because we’re seeing households coming in. Husbands and wives coming in with the same admission date and diagnosis — COVID-19. I had a mother and son come in,” she says. The mother was sedated in one room on a ventilator, the son in another room on a ventilator. “Family members not being able to be with them and having to make decisions over the phone — that’s just unbelievable to me. It’s just very sad,” the Canton resident and mother of three says.
Before COVID-19, Conlon occasionally had patients without family members die alone. Since the hospital prohibits visitors to prevent the virus’ spread, it upsets her to see so many people sick and dying alone. She and the nurses try to take the family’s place. “We’re going in the rooms. We had a woman last week. … The nurse and I were taking turns just staying in her room, holding her hand. She was dying alone. Her son had made the decision just to make her comfortable at the end. He couldn’t come in and so I had to take her off the support,” she says.
The dying patient isn’t alert and awake, but “you’re there talking to her because you don’t know what she knows or how aware she is of what’s going on.”
Conlon wears personal protective equipment, including head coverings, an N95 mask, a surgical mask, face shield, gloves and a gown, and colleagues check each other to be sure they’re fully protected. But her parents and kids still worry about her. When patients are dying, “we’re staying in these COVID rooms longer than we really should be. … There is no boundary, no 6 feet apart. There’s none of that. I’m stroking their hair, their forehead. You’re touching them. You don’t even think twice about it. You do what you have to do,” she says. She gets nervous when she’s in a COVID patient’s room, she says, but can’t imagine letting someone die alone.
While Conlon is often on her feet for her entire shift and follows new protocols as clinicians learn more about the disease, the emotional toll is the hardest part of her job, she says.
In April, on her third day of being in charge of the respiratory therapists on her shift, she heard her name called. “One of my coworkers was on the ground, in the hallway, wailing. She’s like, ‘I can’t take this anymore,’ ” Conlon says. The colleague’s uncle was dying from COVID-19 in New York and she had to make decisions about his care; meanwhile, her mother, living out of state, needed surgery. “She was just very overwhelmed with everything,” she says. “I hugged her. My other coworkers came in and we had our arms around each other.”
While she tries to practice social distancing, she sometimes feels she doesn’t have a choice. “When this woman needed a hug and she’s my coworker. It’s just, I don’t know …” Conlon says.
When patients recover, she’s filled with joy. A COVID-19 patient was admitted to the ICU because clinicians thought he would need to be put on a ventilator. After receiving high oxygen concentrations, his condition improved enough so he could be moved to a less critical floor.
As he left the ICU, staff lined up along the hallway walls, clapping and cheering, something they do for patients who recover. “That was encouraging,” she says. “I got choked up. You start to cry. The emotions are overwhelming.”
Director of trauma services and emergency management, Bridgeport Hospital
By Theresa Sullivan Barger
“It’s like a war — that continuous tragedy that you’re seeing. That’s why we as leaders have to watch out [for burnout].”
Bridgeport Hospital’s Paul Possenti credits his U.S. Army training with preparing him for leading the logistics of planning for staffing, beds, medical equipment and personal protective equipment through the COVID-19 pandemic.
As director of trauma services, emergency management and safety and security, he and other hospital leaders started tracking the coronavirus in January while it was in China. The hospital has emergency management plans in place, so they began preparing for when the virus would come to their hospital, he says.
“We knew this was going to tax our capacity,” he says. Staff turned regular rooms into negative-pressure rooms, which help limit the spread of the virus. Officials contacted their vendor in mid-February to buy portable negative-pressure units, and they were able to beat the rush.
Possenti leads the “Hospital Incident Command” daily meetings involving senior leadership where they keep a tally of their PPE needs, supply of ventilators and negative-pressure rooms, patient numbers and other essentials. “In the beginning, they didn’t have a lot of information on [COVID-19]. You’re changing the game plan as you go along,” says Possenti, a 30-year employee of Bridgeport Hospital and a physician assistant. As hospital staff canceled elective surgery and more COVID-19 patients arrived, administrators reassigned nurses and other clinical staff to different departments.
Given its proximity to New York City, Greenwich Hospital was the first state medical center to see the coronavirus surge. As the peak moved from west to east, staff from the four hospitals within the Yale New Haven Health network were deployed to respond to the need, he says.
He coordinated the erecting of hospital tents for COVID-19 testing at Bridgeport Hospital, triaging and caring for non-COVID patients to free up space within the hospital building for the sickest patients. He asked three local institutions with nursing programs — Sacred Heart University, University of Bridgeport and Housatonic Community College — to loan the hospital beds they have for nurses’ training, and they all came through. The hospital’s information technology staff installed wiring in the tents, and the facilities staff connected generators so the tents could be powered, heated and cooled. “We were able to run it just like a hospital floor,” he says.
Possenti kept thinking of the staff while planning for patients. In the military, everybody has a “battle buddy” to look out for each other, he says. Early on, everyone on staff had to have a buddy, which was especially important for the clinical staff caring for and losing COVID-19 patients.
The disease can be so crippling that it causes multiple organs to fail. Doctors, nurses, physician assistants, respiratory therapists and other staff working 12-hour shifts “always have to be on your game,” he says.
As director of EMS and trauma, Possenti has been a hospital administrator for about five years, but he’s been an on-the-ground PA for 30 years and still fills in for serious traumas when needed. On several occasions during the peak weeks in late March and April, when he finished his administrative duties for the day, he worked with the surgical ICU’s COVID-19 and trauma teams. He and his colleagues treated all patients, including those injured in car crashes and by gunshots, as if they were COVID-19 positive.
After intense demands in March and April, he could see that people were tired and emotionally spent, so as the surge passed, he shifted to giving staff time off. “It’s like a war — that continuous tragedy that you’re seeing. That’s why we as leaders have to watch out [for burnout],” he says. “The other thing that’s helping is the community with all the donations and the food. That’s been amazing.”
A married father of two young-adult children, he doesn’t complain about working six weeks without a day off.
Other experiences haunt him. “I was an administrator-on-call three weeks ago, when we were right in the heat of it. Our numbers were going up,” he says. The nursing supervisor called to say the morgue was filling up. “I had to give permission to use the morgue truck. That really hit you. It’s really hard. It does wear on you.”
Even as he prepares to dismantle the hospital tent, he’s thinking of COVID-19’s lasting impact. “I fear a lot of our people are going to have post-traumatic stress disorder. I don’t care how trained you are and how much you’ve seen,” he says. “When the wind-down happens, that’s when you need support."
Certified medical assistant at Family Medical Group, ProHealth Physicians in Bristol
By Mike Wollschlager
“When all this came about, obviously I got really nervous, really scared.”
By and large, families are spending more time together than ever before. It’s been one of the few silver linings during the initial phase of the coronavirus pandemic. Annie Blais doesn’t have that luxury. Instead, she had to make the most difficult decision of her life.
The certified medical assistant at Family Medical Group in Bristol was used to seeing about 20 patients a day while working with Shelby Rimetz, a physician assistant. Then her location was chosen as one of ProHealth Physicians’ Respiratory Evaluation Center (REC) facilities, sites that see only high-risk, possible COVID-positive patients. “We all got nervous,” Blais says. “We didn’t know what to expect and how dangerous this virus was and how it would impact our jobs and our personal lives.”
She’s been working at the REC since late March. When a patient calls their provider and explains their symptoms, the REC determines if they are going to evaluate them at the center or send them for COVID testing either at a local hospital or the ProHealth testing site in Farmington. “Our goal here is to keep people out of the hospital, not to overwhelm the ER, and to keep them home and safe,” Blais says.
Home and safe. That’s a combination she didn’t think was possible for her 12-year-old son, who is immunosuppressed. “When all this came about, obviously I got really nervous, really scared because I didn’t know how it would impact my life. And I … this is really hard for me,” Blais says as she begins to choke up. “I took it upon myself to ask my ex-husband to take my son for an undetermined amount of time in order to protect him, because I did not want to take the risk of exposing him because I was working in the center.”
Blais hasn’t seen her son in person since March 23, but she’s making the best of an impossibly difficult situation. She texts with him all the time and is getting more use out of FaceTime than anyone at Apple ever intended. Sometimes they talk on FaceTime for a few minutes, other times for hours, they have dinner “together” and she even watches him play video games online with his friends. “He’s a little Fortnite fanatic,” Blais says.
Her oldest child is out of the house and her middle child is a senior at Bristol Eastern. Blais says that sometimes she and the three kids all hop on a call at the same time. “Thank god for technology,” she says as she quickly pivots back to work, a telltale sign of Blais’ commitment to her job. “And that too, we’re using technology to take care of our patients in the midst of all this. We’re still making sure that our patients are cared for, they get their medications, they get the attention that they need.”
The practice manager at Family Medical Group wrote to Connecticut Magazine to let us know about Blais’ story. In the note she mentioned that becoming a nurse has always been Blais’ goal. “Becoming a single parent, I had to put my kids first and put my career aside,” Blais says. Blais also cared for her sick mother before she passed away. She says when this whole mess is over, “maybe I can re-evaluate my future.”
The final line of the letter reads: “My wish for her is that one day she can become the nurse she has always dreamt she’d be.” For now Blais will settle for her son being home, and safe.
University Professor and Connecticut Convergence Institute CEO, UConn
By Mike Wollschlager
“Why in the case of an infection that we know disproportionately affects black people are we not adequately collecting data on black people?”
Back in February, if “black” and “coronavirus” were typed into a search engine, some results would indicate black people were resistant to COVID-19. A myth of black immunity was circulating on the internet and social media. Dr. Cato Laurencin, University Professor at UConn and CEO of the Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation and Regenerative Engineering, was alarmed by what he found. “I set out to examine that because I was really concerned if that misinformation got out it could be disastrous for the black community,” Laurencin says.
He requested data from the state on the number of infections and deaths by race and ethnicity, but was told they didn’t have it. Laurencin pushed back, and in late March he received the information. In late April, at the time of this interview, Laurencin said the state was still not consistently collecting race and ethnicity data. “It’s unbelievable that we don’t,” Laurencin says. “That’s a real issue that needs to be addressed today at a state and national level with the types of vigor that we do when we collect data on individuals who are incarcerated; we collect data by race and ethnicity on almost everything. But why in the case of an infection that we know disproportionately affects black people are we not adequately collecting data on black people?”
Laurencin knows COVID-19 disproportionately affects blacks because he and colleague Dr. Aneesah McClinton published the first peer-reviewed study in the nation with these findings in April. It exploded the myth and created an early warning that the disease could be particularly bad for the black community. In many ways, Laurencin says, Connecticut is a microcosm of America, especially in terms of the percentage of blacks in the overall population. (Blacks make up about 12 percent of Connecticut’s population, according to U.S. Census data.)
There were 96 deaths from COVID-19 in Connecticut at the time the study was published, and the trends were the same when that number hit 1,000 — blacks were over-represented in both cases and deaths. “Early on you collect the data, but No. 2, you also monitor and look at what the trends are,” Laurencin says. “In this case the trends bear this out. There’s also corroborating information from across the country with other centers such as Illinois and Wisconsin, which have also borne this out.”
Laurencin says he believes that if data is properly presented, people will come around to understanding what’s going on. Now there’s a cacophony of voices saying there’s a problem in the black community with COVID-19. “It’s important to understand that the reason why the levels that we’re seeing are this high is because of the history of discrimination that has taken place in this country,” Laurencin says. “People say, ‘Well, no, it’s socio-economic.’ Well, actually the socio-economic portions of it are based upon the history of racism and discrimination in the country.
“People say, “Well, it’s the types of jobs people are doing.” Well, yes, but the types of jobs that people are doing are based upon the history of discrimination in the country. ‘Well, maybe it’s the housing situation people are in.’ True, yes, it is partly the housing situation, but we have a history of housing discrimination and redlining that’s taken place for a large number of years. And all of these come together as a perfect bad storm for black people.”
Clinic nurses, Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale New Haven Health
By Erik Ofgang
“I chose nursing as a profession to help other people, and this is clearly a time when others are in dire need of our help.”
Kali Pelligrino and Kelly Gaffney were both 23 and new to nursing when they were faced with a difficult decision. The Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale New Haven was moving all of its in-patients a few blocks away to the Saint Raphael Campus, and the floor where Pelligrino (shown at right) and Gaffney worked at the cancer hospital was converted to a COVID floor. Staff members at the Smilow Cancer Hospital were asked to consider volunteering to stay behind and work with COVID-19 patients.
Pelligrino, of Ansonia, started six months ago. Gaffney, of Southbury, started in February 2019. They were among those who said they would stay on their floor.
“It wasn’t an easy decision to make,” Gaffney says during a video interview with both. “I knew I’d be exposing myself and potentially my family at home to the virus if I volunteered, but ultimately I chose nursing as a profession to help other people, and this is clearly a time when others are in dire need of our help. So I really just wanted to join the fight.”
Pelligrino nods in agreement, adding that they wanted to spare their older coworkers who had kids or who might be more vulnerable to the disease. “We wanted to do it so that other nurses that did have to come home to their kids weren’t forced to do it.”
Since April the two nurses have been working three 12-hour shifts per week on a 28-bed floor that usually has 20-24 COVID-19 patients.
To limit the number of people entering the COVID rooms, the nurses have seen their duties expand. “We’re now responsible for taking out the linen and trash,” Gaffney says. “We’re delivering our patients’ breakfast, lunch, dinner, performing focused respiratory assessments, administering meds.”
The pair have also done what nurses have done throughout the ages: provide medical care and comfort to patients in need.
“We’re sometimes the only human interaction they have throughout the day,” Gaffney says of her patients. “It’s a nice feeling that when you enter the patient’s room the patient is no longer alone. … I never want to leave the room once they start talking to me about something. I really want to hear about my patient’s life.”
When Pelligrino was caring for an elderly patient dying from the disease, she knew she was that patient’s only human interaction. “I had to be her support system at that time and kind of just hold her hand and let her know that she had somebody on her side. She knew I was there even though she couldn’t tell me all the time.”
Tracy Carafeno, Smilow Cancer Hospital in-patient nursing director, has been impressed with the young nurses’ willingness to care for patients with the virus. “We have much more senior staff throughout the hospital who are getting exemptions and doctors’ notes that they don’t have to take care of COVID patients,” she says. “Some I’m sure are legit, and some are fear. The fact that these two being so new stepped up and volunteered speaks a lot to their character.”
Pelligrino and Gaffney don’t spend too much time thinking about the potential sacrifice; they’re too busy focusing on their jobs. “At the end of the day we’re nurses and this is what we do,” Pelligrino says. “You just can’t abandon people right now, especially in a time like this. This is where we’re needed and we’re happy to be here.”
Attending surgeon, Greenwich Hospital
By Mike Wollschlager
“You realize where the problem is, you just march in and do what you have to do.”
In a time of constant concern about supply chains, whether it be PPE, toilet paper or food, there will be no shortage of humility in our health care heroes. Dr. Athanassios Petrotos, an attending surgeon, epitomizes that humility as he explains, in so many words, that he and every single other person at Greenwich Hospital are just doing their jobs. “This is like a Herculean approach to this situation,” Petrotos says. “Everybody’s together. You cannot distinguish between the health care provider and the maintenance and the food guy and the nurses and the respiratory care people and the administration. Everybody jumped together into this one.”
What Petrotos has done is shift his focus from the operating room to the intensive care unit. The pulmonary critical care doctors in the ICU treat intubated patients, but other procedures still require the deft hand of a surgeon. Petrotos establishes central venous lines in patients to give them fluids or medications, and catheters for dialysis. In some instances, tubes need to be replaced in the chest to alleviate conditions that arise in the lungs.
“This took a significant load of work from their hands,” Petrotos says, “in order for them to focus on COVID patients 100 percent.” Being a part of the Yale New Haven Health network has also been invaluable, according to Petrotos. Some of the sickest patients are transferred up to New Haven to relieve some of the burden from the much-smaller Greenwich Hospital.
Petrotos’ wife is a surgeon at NYU and they have a 12-year-old son. He admits in the beginning of the crisis there was a lot of anxiety about how to manage the situation. “Having two surgeons in the house perhaps was very beneficial to us,” Petrotos says. “Because when we find ourselves in a time of crisis we just sit down and we make a plan and we say this is how it’s going to be.”
They stagger their shifts so someone can always be home with their son, and their work on the front lines does not give them a hall pass from their home-schooling duties. But Petrotos says he sees the bright side of things. “Having the opportunity to spend all this time with my son at home alleviates a lot of the anxiety and the stress sometimes,” Petrotos says. “Having him at home for so many hours, it’s great. I can see him. It’s not like before. But it’s weird and I don’t want this to continue like that. I want him to go out and play with his friends and do whatever he has to do, but ... I don’t know. I don’t know. To a certain extent it is comforting.”
When asked about the fear and anxiety that now goes along with doing his job, he just had more credit to pass around. “We understand the gravity of the situation, no matter what one’s background is,” Petrotos says. “I would say that all the other communities that jump in situations of crisis — like firefighters and police and the army and everybody — you realize where the problem is, you just march in and do what you have to do, and that’s it. That’s the bottom line.”
Respiratory therapist, Middlesex Hospital
By Theresa Sullivan Barger
“I held his hand. I told him, ‘We’ve got this. We’re going to take good care of you.’ A couple of hours later, he died. I struggled with that.”
With 42 years of experience as a respiratory therapist, Joanna Minuk projects an unflappable, no-nonsense demeanor. But after a week when her hospital, Middlesex Memorial in Middletown, experienced a large influx of COVID-19 patients, her spirits needed lifting. That’s when she saw signs of community support. Her Cromwell neighbor put up red hearts in her window and sent a text saying she was thinking of her. A friend sent words of encouragement.
“That helps, especially if you’ve had a bad day,” she says.
Dealing with death is part of the job, but the number of deaths has made it hard, even for a 20-year trauma ward veteran. That’s why the cards and notes from friends and strangers alike mean so much. “It makes my heart melt. I feel pride when I see them. I’m thankful that people understand the front-line workers are doing what they can. It’s very heartwarming to see people have things in their yards, in their windows,” she says.
The severity of COVID-19 as it progresses is unprecedented. As clinicians learn more, the doctors’ treatment orders change daily. Minuk is using different and new types of equipment.
Meriden resident Joe Crispino, the hospital’s first COVID-19 patient, was the sickest Minuk had seen in her career. Despite a lengthy waiting list, when he needed a rotational bed one became available. It took six staff members about 1½ hours to safely move him into the bed. “That man had angels watching over him,” she says. After kidney failure, multiple cardiac arrests and a month in the hospital, most of it on a ventilator in the critical care unit (CCU), Crispino was released to Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford for further recovery.
Minuk wasn’t working the day he was released, but saw a video of the story on WFSB. “I just cried. I had tears of joy,” says the Cromwell mother of two adult daughters.
Before the days of COVID-19, there might be time to visit someone whom she cared for who had improved and been transferred to another area facility. In late April, out of the 24 CCU beds, 19 of the patients were on ventilators. As part of her care of these patients, she removes secretions, sometimes draws blood to see how well the ventilator is working and helps nurses turn the patient. Respiratory therapists still respond to other calls throughout the hospital when patients have extreme breathing difficulties.
“We’re so busy. We just go from room to room putting people on ventilators. You don’t have time to think,” she says. Between patients, she has to focus on putting on her personal protective equipment, which sometimes includes a powered air-purifying respirator, a self-contained breathing device that covers the entire head to protect health care workers from airborne virus particles when patients are put on or taken off ventilators.
Her work days and weeks are emotional roller coasters, she says. After caring for one man for a week, he wasn’t improving and needed to be put on a ventilator. “He was scared. I held his hand. I told him, ‘We’ve got this. We’re going to take good care of you,’ ” she says. “A couple of hours later, he died. I struggled with that.”
The next day, she learned that their sickest patient, Crispino, 48, husband and father of two school-age boys, was well enough to leave the hospital.
She credits the entire team in the CCU for their hard work and long hours, saying, “It’s been a humbling experience taking care of these people and being part of their survival.”
Certified nursing assistant, Touchpoints at Manchester nursing facility
By Erik Ofgang
“You try and help them as much as you can, as much as possible, and still at the end of the day you feel like you didn’t do enough for them.”
One of the residents Leikiesh Nails cares for at Touchpoints at Manchester would draw pictures on his placemat during lunch and give them to her. Another resident always greeted her with a friendly, drawn-out “Hey, baby,” before asking her how she was doing.
Both residents died from COVID-19 within the first two months of the outbreak. They are among several Nails grew close to who succumbed to the disease, which saw 13 confirmed and 17 presumed fatalities from the virus as of May 1. At that time, 43 residents of the 131-bed facility had tested positive.
“When you’re working with the patients, you try and help them as much as you can, as much as possible, and still at the end of the day you feel like you didn’t do enough for them,” says Nails, a 38-year-old certified nursing assistant. In tears, she continues, “Patients that you have relationships with, they become a part of your family. There’s nothing you can do for them and basically you watch them die. This is my life now.”
Nursing homes have been particularly hard hit by the virus. In Connecticut, as of mid-May, nursing home fatalities from the coronavirus were close to 1,500, and accounted for nearly half of the COVID-blamed deaths in the state. More than 20 percent of those who contracted the virus in nursing homes so far have died.
Nails, who lives in Willimantic, has watched co-workers test positive for the virus, and she has taken on extra shifts to fill the gap even as she worries about her own health. She’s been called racial slurs by residents who are angry and confused over the new requirements that they stay in their rooms for their safety. She’s stopped hugging her own children “because I’m afraid I might be a carrier.”
Even so, in her interview with us, the single mother of four’s thoughts were not with her own hardships but with those in her care. “Sometimes they have the real high, high fevers. The nurse is doing her best to try and break it,” she says. “Then I come in and I’m putting a cold cloth on their heads and their chest to try and help break it.”
Again and again they tell her they can’t breath. Residents are sent to the hospital as they get worse, but the progression of the disease can be devastatingly swift. One day, she says, a resident will be up walking and talking and doing everything for themselves, the next day she has to help them in the bathroom. Often, she says, they seem to lose the will to fight the disease as their body fails.
Residents who don’t have the virus are anxious and afraid and nobody can have visitors. So Nails spends a lot of time talking on the phone with their family members trying to tell them what’s going on and ease their worry when she can.
“We’re taking care of their loved ones as best as we can, and a lot of times we end up getting sick ourselves,” she says. Though she has not fallen ill, she’s needed to take on frequent back-to-back, eight-hour shifts to fill in for co-workers who have contracted the virus. She has personal protective equipment and takes off her work clothes before returning home, but COVID-19 patients are not kept in negative-air-pressure rooms at the facility as they are at many hospitals. She wonders what will happen to her children if she gets sick.
Even with all this, she’s never thought of quitting. “This is all I know. I love what I do. I love helping people, I love connecting with people, I love all of it,” she says. But she acknowledges, “This has forever changed me and I just hope and pray that I never see anything like this again.”
Chief certified registered nurse anesthetist, NewYork-Presbyterian Lawrence Hospital
By Erik Ofgang
“This is really like defeating a foe. The patient and all their care providers beat it, and they are celebrating that victory.”
At the end of Jennifer Carroll’s shifts at NewYork-Presbyterian Lawrence Hospital, her husband would pick her up to drive her back to their home in Connecticut. “I would just get in the car and cry,” says Carroll, who is the chief certified registered nurse anesthetist at the hospital.
In early March, Carroll, who lives in Sherman and is an adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University, found herself at the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in New York. Her Bronxville hospital is about 20 miles north of midtown Manhattan. One of the earliest instances of community spread of the coronavirus was discovered at the hospital on March 2 when a New Rochelle lawyer who was a patient there tested positive for COVID-19. That high-profile case drew widespread media coverage, but it was soon clear that community spread was rampant.
As the outbreak worsened, Carroll led intubation teams that would place as many as six to seven people a day on ventilators. During the early days of the pandemic, as new systems were put into place to handle the coronavirus patients, Carroll was at the hospital constantly, once staying for 30 hours straight, though she slept for some of that time.
On the worst days, she says the hospital felt like a war zone.
“The patients are so sick, and the nurses are working so hard, and the doctors are working so hard, and sometimes it doesn’t seem to make a difference,” she says via video call, struggling to hold back tears. “We’re not used to having so many patients not make it no matter what we do.”
Like other health care workers, she watched patients die in isolation rooms, unable to have their loved ones nearby. She thinks about “all these family members and how their lives are never going to be quite back to normal. There’s been nurses who have lost family members. It has been an incredibly hard thing on everyone.”
In late April she was home sick with what in other times would be called flu-like symptoms. She had a headache, fatigue, muscle aches, a cough and chest tightness. She tested negative for COVID-19, but she’s not sure if it was a false negative or if she caught something else. She has many colleagues who have fallen ill with the virus, and she’s worried.
During intubations, patients often cough and gasp for air, all the while spreading virus particles. As a result, the procedure is thought to be particularly high risk for health care workers. “Most of my crew has come down with some level of illness,” Carroll says.
By mid-May, she was feeling well enough to return to work to lead her team and help her patients. Her daughter is an EMT and works for Danbury Hospital. Throughout the crisis, they’ve shared stories and reflected on their similar experiences. Even during the most difficult of times, Carroll’s been inspired by those she works with, including medical staff who traveled to New York from out of state to work at her hospital. They have displayed “amazing generosity of humanity and spirit,” she says. And she stresses that these sacrifices have been made by everyone working at the hospital, from doctors and nurses to pharmacists, facilities workers, nutritionists and administrators whom she credits for making sure staff were adequately supplied with personal protective equipment.
Each time a patient recovers from COVID-19 and leaves the hospital, Carroll says there is a scene like she’s never witnessed in her 25 years in medicine. The staff plays the hit ’90s song “Tubthumping” with its “I get knocked down, but I get up again” chorus. “There’s a crowd that shows up and claps,” she says. “We’ve never done that with regularly discharged patients before. This is really like defeating a foe. The patient and all their care providers beat it, and they are celebrating that victory.”
Housekeeping staff member, Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, New London
By Theresa Sullivan Barger
“I put myself in the place of the patients lying in the bed who can’t have visitors. I’m a listener. You hear so many stories.”
During this time when patients can’t have visitors, Kimberly Brown sees herself as a caretaker of patients’ spirits as well as their rooms.
The 10-year veteran of the housekeeping staff at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London calls herself a “people person” who is spending more time with patients who seem to want to talk. “Housekeepers are almost like front and center. We get pretty close to the patients,” she says. “I put myself in the place of the patients lying in the bed who can’t have visitors. I’m a listener. You hear so many stories.”
Brown’s mother recently suffered a stroke and couldn’t have visitors in the hospital because of the coronavirus, so she understands how hard it is for families not to visit loved ones and for those who are ill to be alone without visitors. “FaceTime, it helps, but it really doesn’t take the place,” Brown says.
While she works on an oncology floor, she takes precautions with all patients since people can be COVID-19 positive without symptoms. When patients show symptoms of the virus, the patients’ rooms are also treated as COVID-19 positive. Before entering the room, Brown puts on personal protective equipment — an N95 mask, a gown, shoe coverings, a hair covering and gloves. She waits an hour after the patient has left the room to clean it.
“I’m already kind of claustrophobic. First of all, you’re very hot, you’re sweaty, you’re moving and you’re trying to breathe,” she says. She cleans the bathroom, wipes down all the handles, light switches and everything else with a bleach solution and washes the floor; it takes about 45 minutes.
After leaving the room, she takes the gown, gloves and coverings off carefully and puts them and the room’s trash into a plastic bag, ties it up and double bags it in a color-coded bag that signals that it comes from a COVID-positive room. She then brings the bag to the janitor’s closet, where another staff member picks it up and disposes of it. N95 masks are kept in paper bags for reuse.
Despite all the PPE, Brown worries about bringing the virus home to her 15-year-old daughter. If she doesn’t walk home from work, she sits in the back seat on the passenger side of her carpool partner’s car. Once inside her New London home, she takes everything off, puts it in a bag and puts on a big T-shirt. She washes her face, brushes her teeth and, within a half-hour of arriving home, heads for the shower. She washes her work clothes separately from other laundry.
While she tries to keep her distance and not hug and kiss her daughter as much as usual, she says, “I still hug her.” Her boyfriend works in a health care facility as well, so when he visits, they sit outside on the porch 6 feet apart and wear masks. Until there’s a vaccine, she says, “that’s the best it can get."
Emergency medical technician, Stamford EMS
By Erik Ofgang
“I really love this job. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t especially hard days right now, but I’m hopeful it will pass.”
Dan Wellen is tired. Since March, the 25-year-old Stamford EMS employee has worked as one half of a two-man ambulance team in Stamford, the Connecticut city hardest hit by coronavirus. The young emergency medical technician enters homes of suspected COVID-19 patients, donning a mask and “gowning up” before he goes in, unsure what he’ll find inside. Sometimes the patients are dead when he arrives. Other times he can tell they won’t make it. Sometimes he needs to call his partner in so they can carry the patient out on a stretcher. When that happens they need to radio a firefighter to come to the scene and drive the ambulance. In those instances, Wellen and his partner ride in the back with the patient so as not to contaminate the cab of the ambulance.
Despite these precautions, EMS workers, like health care workers, still get sick. A close friend of his at Stamford EMS tested positive for COVID-19. Wellen worries about every cough and sneeze. He worries about bringing the virus home to his parents with whom he still lives in Norwalk. He worries about what will happen to him if he gets the virus, even though he’s young and healthy.
“It is sad because it just hits everybody differently,” he says on a Wednesday afternoon over a video call, the weariness audible in his voice and visible in his eyes. “The patient that may be on their way out, I wonder why it’s hitting them like this, why they’re experiencing it like this. If I get it I really don’t know what’s going to happen.” He adds that the extreme cases he’s seen have been “mostly elderly people, but I’ve seen some younger people too, in their 30s and 40s. It’s definitely a little scary.”
Our interview begins the previous evening at the start of Wellen’s shift at Stamford EMS. A few minutes into it, an alarm goes off and he has to go on a call. It is the first of seven that night. Without sleeping the next morning he attends his paramedic class online, then calls me back in the early afternoon to pick up where we’d left off. He’s been up for more than 24 hours, which he says isn’t uncommon.
A graduate of the University of Connecticut with a degree in history, Wellen originally planned on being a high school history teacher, but after taking an EMT course he fell in love with the field, switched gears and has been working as an EMT for more than two years. Now that the job requires more risk than he originally anticipated, Wellen is honest that he sometimes thinks about switching careers. “I’ve certainly thought about it,” he says. But such thoughts are fleeting.
“I still really love this job, it’s just been a little hard lately. I’m dedicated to this. I really enjoy this. I really love this. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t especially hard days right now, but I’m hopeful it will pass. Even if it doesn’t, I still have the ability to find happiness and passion in the job.”
Nurse, Institute of Living, Hartford
By Theresa Sullivan Barger
“Being able to work during a pandemic is kind of the definition of making a difference.”
After the K-8 therapeutic day school where she works as a nurse moved online March 13, Kim Bastan was asked if she wanted to work with COVID-19 patients at the Institute of Living in Hartford. Both the private school and the psychiatric facility are part of the Hartford Healthcare network, and she began her training the following Monday.
“I was honestly kind of excited to be able to help during the time of a pandemic,” the Burlington resident says. “I just find a lot of fulfillment in helping other people. I became a nurse to help people. Being able to work during a pandemic is kind of the definition of making a difference.”
She spent two months working at a mental health hospital while in nursing school, but had not worked with adults since then. After receiving two weeks of in-service training in March, she began the night shift on the COVID-19 floor. “I was not scared about catching COVID but I was very nervous about working with adults because I had been working with kids the last three years,” she says.
Her patients are admitted to the institute for mental health issues, but are put on the COVID floor if they test positive for the disease or have the disease when admitted. Most of her patients are asymptomatic or moderately ill. If their condition becomes critical, they’re transported to Hartford Hospital until they’ve stabilized because the institute doesn’t have an intensive care unit.
She chats with patients while providing what’s called “clustered care.” Every four hours she checks patients’ vital signs and lung sounds, delivers medication and food at the same time in an effort to limit exposure and conserve personal protective equipment. “I don’t get to interact with the patients as much as I’d like. I miss being able to physically be close and use therapeutic touch,” Bastan says. “It’s hard not to rub their back or hold their hand and tell them it’s going to be OK. We try not to spend too much time in the rooms because we don’t want to contract the disease ourselves.”
She delivers support and psychological care through the door, she says. She’ll hold up a cellphone from the other side of the door so patients can videoconference with loved ones.
Despite working with COVID-19 patients with mental illness, she feels more anxiety when watching the news and seeing protesters crammed together not practicing social distancing. “I honestly had to do a double take to see if it was real. I just had to stop looking. These people seem to be taking it sort of as a joke,” she says. “This is really serious. We’re working really hard to make this pandemic go away as fast as we can. Standing together in crowds is not helping this pandemic go away any sooner.”