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The New York Times

They Died Saving Others From COVID. Will Anyone Count Them?

Dr. Claire Rezba is exhausted from counting the dead. An anesthesiologist in Virginia, Rezba, 41, has spent the past year running a Twitter feed that memorializes American health care workers who have died of COVID-19. So far, she has published more than 2,500 tributes to the doctors, emergency room nurses, respiratory therapists and mental health counselors cut down in their prime. Although she knows there are at least a thousand other deaths that remain unrecognized, Rezba plans to discontinue the project at the end of March. Sign up for The Morning newsletter from the New York Times “I’d like to spend some time with my children,” said Rezba, who devotes most evenings after work to scouring GoFundMe pages, Facebook memorials and online death notices. “But I’d also like to stop thinking about death all the time.” Many Americans share that sentiment. But a year since the first recorded coronavirus death of a health care worker — a hospital custodian in Rochester, New York, who died March 17 — those on the front lines are finding it hard to move on. They have been hailed as “COVID warriors” but so many do not feel like heroes. They are angry, burned out and feel unappreciated as they struggle with their own wounds, both psychic and physical. Their fury is rooted in the weak government response last spring to the pandemic, including the scarcity of personal protective equipment that left workers vulnerable to infection. Their ire has been compounded by the recent relaxation of mask mandates in some states, a move that experts say is premature given that only 1 in 10 Americans is fully vaccinated and more contagious variants are continuing to spread. The United States is still averaging more than 1,000 deaths a day. “We’re not out of the woods yet so it just feels disrespectful to medical workers and devalues the sacrifices we’ve made,” said Dr. Erica Bial, a pain specialist in Massachusetts who runs the COVID-19 Physicians Memorial, a Facebook group dedicated to doctors felled by the coronavirus. The number of medical workers who lost their lives to the virus over the past year remains elusive. The federal government does not have a system for accurately counting these fatalities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists more than 1,400 deaths, but its data covers less than one-fifth of the nation’s health care workforce. Its sister agency, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, counts roughly the same number of worker deaths, but those figures include only nursing home staff. The best estimate comes from a joint project by Kaiser Health News and The Guardian newspaper that has documented more than 3,500 health care worker deaths in the United States since last March. Rezba is hoping her work can find a more permanent home so that the sacrifices are not forgotten. “Each health care worker death is a tragedy compounded,” she said. “It represents the private pain of a sister, father or daughter taken in their prime, and the loss of expertise that impacts the colleagues and patients left behind.” What follows are just of a few of those losses. — Dr. Jill Stoller, a pediatrician in New Jersey, never shied away from daunting challenges. She triumphed over breast cancer, raised two children while working full time, and in 2009 joined a medical mission to Ghana, helping perform 150 pediatric surgeries in 10 days. “It just grounds me,” she said at the time, explaining why anyone would want to use their vacation time to work 12-hour days without pay. After a male pediatrician stood up during a medical conference and suggested his female counterparts lacked the business acumen to manage a medical office, Stoller went on to run a consortium of pediatric practices, and later started a nationwide movement to empower female pediatricians to run their own practices. Unabashedly liberal, Stoller took the election of Donald Trump as a personal affront. The day after his inauguration, she marshaled three dozen suburbanites onto a chartered bus bound for the Women’s March on Washington. Well into her 50s, she took up a side vocation as a dog trainer and traveled across the country to competitions and seminars. “My mom was not one to sit on the couch,” said her daughter, Jenna Stoller, a neonatal physician assistant. “She was extra about everything.” COVID-19, however, challenged her derring-do. The virus coursed through her practice early in March 2020, infecting Stoller and several other staff members. Stoller, 59, initially appeared to beat back the disease, but she could not shake the fatigue, shortness of breath and brain fog that sent her into a depression. She returned to work, but spent hours each day researching the health challenges for COVID long-haulers. By the summer, she came to believe she would never recover her mental acuity. “She had this amazing ability to bounce back from anything, but this time was different,” said her son, Travis Stoller. On Nov. 29, Stoller took her own life, shocking all of those who knew her. “I don’t think any of us realized how hopeless she felt,” her son said. “But she was absolutely convinced this virus had completely changed her as a person.” — When the coronavirus arrived last spring at the sprawling Navajo Nation, Raymond Joe, 48, a home health nurse and former Marine, began sounding the alarm. He urged Navajo elders to self-isolate, and delivered food and cleaning supplies to the homebound. He sent his children to live with relatives, so that he and his wife, Eugenia Johnson, an emergency room nurse, would not have to worry about infecting them when they returned home from work. For years he had badgered public officials about the poverty and threadbare medical care that contributes to the poor health of so many of his people. He knew that frequent hand washing would be especially challenging for the 40% of Navajo households that lack running water and indoor plumbing. With roughly a dozen ventilators and 400 hospital beds to serve a population of 170,000, he warned that a serious outbreak of the coronavirus would be devastating. “I am pleading with all my people to listen to the warnings and abide by the rules,” he wrote in a letter published in the Navajo Times. “The choices you make today influence all those around you.” Joe, 48, was widely known and respected in a community whose members are spread out across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. A gifted jokester and raconteur, he was the rare health care professional fluent in Navajo, a skill that comforted his older patients. “He had a huge heart and really worked his butt off to try to ensure his community was OK,” Johnson said. His fears proved prescient: According to the CDC, the coronavirus pandemic has killed Native Americans at nearly twice the rate of whites, a toll that has had ruinous impact on cultural and linguistic traditions as it decimates the ranks of tribal elders. But Joe also feared for his own well-being. He had a history of diabetes and high blood pressure, and his time as an explosives expert during Operation Desert Storm left his lungs badly scarred by exposure to caustic chemical fumes. In mid-November, after Johnson came down with a sore throat, the couple tried to steer clear of each other at home and wore masks indoors. A few days later, Joe also began to feel unwell. She quickly recovered, but his condition worsened. During their three-hour journey to a veterans hospital in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the couple held hands as Joe struggled to breathe. He spent 11 days on a ventilator and died Dec. 19, leaving behind four children. He was interred at a military cemetery in New Mexico. In his letter to the Navajo Times, Joe seems to have predicted his fate. “This virus has turned my job into a blessing and a curse,” he wrote. “My expertise in my field has opened numerous opportunities. However, this could be a curse if I catch the virus doing the job that I love and have to pay with my life.” — Accompanying Sandra Oldfield to the mall could be time-consuming. Oldfield, 53, a registered nurse in Fresno, California, wasn’t much of a shopper, but her predilection for chatting up strangers could be mildly exasperating. “You’d turn around and she’d be talking to someone, and when you’d ask who that was, she’d shrug and say, ‘I don’t know,’ ” recalled her sister, Linda Rodriguez. Oldfield exuded kindness — to Freckles, Reeses and Dallas, the rescue dogs she adopted. To the nieces and nephews she shamelessly spoiled. And to the countless patients she cared for during her 25 years working at Kaiser Fresno Medical Center. It was Oldfield who festooned the nurse’s lounge with holiday décor. Ailing plants at the nursing station would be miraculously nurtured back to life, and if a co-worker complained about an aching back, Oldfield, a licensed massage therapist, would drop everything, fetch her massage oils and get to work. Oldfield was also deeply spiritual. To her, nursing was a calling from God, who she credited with getting her through a childhood bout of leukemia. “She knew what it was like to lay there in bed and be ill,” Rodriguez said. When the pandemic hit California last spring, Oldfield tried to remain cheerful but colleagues said she shared their concern over the lack of personal protective gear. Around St. Patrick’s Day, one of Oldfield’s cardiac patients tested positive for the virus; a few days later, she, too, began to feel ill. It turns out that dozens of hospital employees had been exposed to the infected patient, according to their union, National Nurses United. Ten nurses later tested positive for the virus, and three of them were hospitalized. Oldfield hid the severity of her symptoms from her family, they said. It was only when she collapsed on the floor and was unable to get up that she allowed her sister to call an ambulance — and only if she promised to tell the dispatcher that the paramedics had to wear gloves and masks. “Her biggest concern about going to the hospital was that she would infect others,” Rodriguez said. Her family takes comfort in knowing she was cared for by co-workers at Fresno Medical Center, but in the end, doctors placed her on a ventilator. She died on May 25, more than a month later. A candlelight memorial held outside the hospital a few days later drew a large crowd of colleagues. Many of them dressed in orange, her favorite color. — Syvie Robertson brimmed with verve and self-confidence. A Navy veteran and Prince devotee who raised three children on her own, Robertson earned a licensed practical nursing degree when she was well into her 40s. The Robertson home in Petersburg, Virginia, was often packed with neighborhood children and, more recently, her four grandchildren. They came for Robertson’s effusive warmth and no-nonsense advice but stayed for her cooking: Snickers cheesecakes, lemon tarts, prime rib and six-cheese macaroni salads. “She was a mom to everyone,” her daughter Meshayla Jones said. Robertson came from a long line of medical professionals — her mother and cousins were nurses, as is Jones. Her other daughter, Ciara Robertson, is an occupational therapist. Determined to advance her career, Robertson had recently returned to school part time so she could become a registered nurse. The schedule was grueling but she never complained. This winter, as the coronavirus coursed through the Virginia nursing home where she worked, her tough-as-nails bravado began to wilt. “She was terrified of getting the virus but she was also dedicated to her patients,” recalled Jones. She wore two masks, but Robertson contracted the coronavirus in early December. She spent Christmas on a ventilator, and died on New Year’s Day. She was 51. “I feel like her death was totally avoidable,” her daughter said. “It stings because if she had remained healthy a few more weeks she would have gotten the vaccine and might still be alive today.” — You might not immediately notice Celia Yap-Banago in a crowded room. A telemetry nurse in Kansas City, Missouri, Yap-Banago seemed shy, but she was no shrinking violet. “Mom was loud and loved to crack jokes around people she knew,” said her son, Jhulan Banago. “If she wasn’t making a joke about you, you were probably on her bad side.” Yap-Banago was also widely admired for her boundless compassion, for both her patients and the generations of young nurses she mentored at Research Medical Center, her employer for nearly four decades. Her decision to emigrate from the Philippines in her early 20s put her in good company. Filipinos are the single-largest group of foreign-born nurses in the United States. They also make up nearly one-third of all COVID-related deaths among nurses, according to National Nurses United. Yap-Banago, 69, never forgot the relatives she left behind in the Philippines — especially the six siblings who scraped together the money to send her to nursing school. The family compound she built in Albay in the Philippines is a testament to that generosity. “Mom was always thinking about others,” her son said. Yap-Banago thought she could safely ride out the pandemic, especially given that the cardiac patients she cared for were far removed from the hospital’s COVID ward. At least that’s what she told her family when they expressed concern about the shortages of personal protective gear. Still, each night when returning home from her 12-hour shifts, Yap-Banago would go straight to the laundry room and remove her scrubs before sitting down to dinner with her husband and two sons. On March 23, one of her patients began showing symptoms of COVID-19, and a few days later, Yap-Banago lost her sense of taste and smell, and then developed a fever. Determined to stay home, she ordered her husband and sons to wear masks and sequestered herself inside the master bedroom, only opening the door for the home-cooked meals left at the threshold. Over the next month, she grew weak, and her breathing increasingly labored, but Yap-Banago refused to go to the hospital. “Don’t worry,” she told her son one day from the other side of the door. “I’ll be fine.” A few hours later, on April 21, she was gone. — Dr. Sydney J. Mehl, a cardiologist at New York University Langone, turned almost every patient into a friend: He took their calls while on vacation, memorized the names of their grandchildren and often made time to attend the shivas of those that modern medicine could not save. “When it came to his patients, I don’t think I ever heard him say ‘no,’” recalled his daughter, Jackie Mehl. Mehl, 73, the son of European immigrants who escaped the Holocaust, grew up in Brooklyn and spent his entire 50-year career at NYU, where he could often be found in the hallway kibitzing with lab technicians, cafeteria workers or security guards. Colleagues referred to him as the Mayor of NYU. He could also be unabashedly emotional. “When he dropped me off at summer camp, he’d be the only father crying,” his daughter said. Mehl was a voracious reader — history books about World War II, Israel and the United States were his favorites. When he traveled, he’d wake up each morning to tackle an exhausting itinerary of museums, monuments and restaurants. “He’d be planning the next vacation even before we came home,” said his wife, Nancy Greenwald. At a time when many doctors are plotting retirement, Mehl insisted on working full time, though last March, he finally agreed to take off Fridays. He laid out a meticulous plan for that first Friday: Wake up, read the newspaper, return to bed, eat breakfast, and then have a nap. But he woke up that day with back pain, and when it became excruciating, Greenwald decided to call an ambulance. (Four of the patients he had treated the previous week, they later learned, had tested positive for the virus.) It was only when the ambulance crew refused to allow her to climb inside that Greenwald realized her husband might be sick with the coronavirus. Her most searing memory was standing outside NYU later that day as a long line of ambulances, their lights flashing, waited to drop patients off at the emergency room. A few days later, she, too, fell ill with COVID-19 but quickly recovered. In one of his last conversations before being intubated, Mehl assured his wife and daughter he’d be awake in 10 days, but not before making a wisecrack about the lousy food. He lingered on a ventilator for 50 days and died on May 20. — If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources. This article originally appeared in The New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company

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