Putting Others First

July 14, 2020

As COVID-19 raged, concern for their patients kept recovered and vulnerable members on the front lines.

Back To The Front Lines

PuttingOthers1.jpgIn the battle against COVID-19 there are legions of heroes. Every day, essential workers demonstrated for the world what exemplary care and compassion look like.

Among the others who deserve some of the highest praise are those who after being infected, recovered and returned to the front lines. Linda Silva, a CNA at both Beacon NH and Queens Nassau NH, tested positive on March 24. With long-term care facilities leading nation in the percentage of infections and deaths, Silva was on the front lines of some of the pandemic’s most challenging working conditions.

When she spoke to 1199 Magazine in late May, she was still suffering some effects of the disease including loss of her smell and taste.

“At the time of my infection the city’s nursing homes were not adequately prepared,” she says. “We were severely short-handed and those of us on the job lacked the necessary equipment.”

“I was fortunate to be able to isolate myself at home with my husband and two sons,” she says. “Luckily, we have two bathrooms.”

Silva returned to work on April 6, but tested positive again on April 18. She left work and returned in May. She continues to worry about her patients and coworkers.

PuttingOthers2.jpg“I’m still not confident about the state’s policies and procedures,” she states. “I don’t believe we are prepared for the large influx of very sick patients who are released from our hospitals. The policy of releasing such patients to us puts everyone at risk.”

RN Jesus Montenegro, a resident of Bergenfield, NJ, and a nurse manager at Bronx Gardens NH, fell ill to the virus on March 19, two days before NJ Gov. Phil Murphy announced a statewide stay-at-home order and five days before New York State’s order. With dangerously low oxygen saturation levels, Montenegro spent a week in ICU and 14 days in isolation at home. “I had diarrhea and fever and no appetite,” he recalls. “I lost 14 pounds in two weeks.”

Montenegro says that an added burden in addition to his fear for his health was loneliness and the gloom of isolation. He sorely missed his wife, a Montefiore RN, and three children.

“My faith helped to see me through,” he stresses. “I was deluged with prayers from members of my church ministry. And I felt God’s intervention through a nurse and doctor who were treating me.”

Although Montenegro is a supervising nurse, he is a member of 1199. “When the nursing home administrators tried to convert me to management, I refused,” he says. “I was involved in too many fights for the Union and I didn’t want to lose the protection and Union benefits.”

He returned to work on April 13. The virus was gone but so was much of his strength. “When I tried to help lift patients, I ran out of breath,” he recalls. “I still don’t have the strength to hit high notes. But there’s been a dramatic improvement at work since the lockdown. We now have personal protective equipment we lacked at the beginning.

This experience has been a real wake-up call.” McArthur Caesar, an engineering department worker at Beth Israel (BI) Hospital in New York City, also leaned on his faith during his COVID crisis. Previously in excellent health, Caesar experienced worrisome chills one night in late March. “Within 24 hours, I was in pain from head to toe,” he says. “I had never before experienced such pain.” After seeing a doctor at BI, he was told to isolate himself at home away from his wife and grown daughter and son. His wife soon exhibited symptoms, but was able to recover without hospitalization.

His recovery is not free of concerns. “I panicked when I walked toward the subway my first day back. But now I’m much more alert,” he says.

He is comforted somewhat by improvement in the hospital readiness he’s seen since his return. An ordained elder in his church, Caesar continues to pray with family members and co-workers at BI. “That and the help of the Union gives me strength,” he says.

Marcela Vasquez, a transporter at Long Island Community Hospital, contracted the virus on March 23. Her recovery, she says, was somewhat of a roller-coaster ride. It reflected how everyone seemed to be flying blind at the outset of the outbreak. She was shuttled between hospitals, urgent-care clinics and home before finally being cleared to return to work in early June.

“At one point, I thought I would die,” Vasquez says. Going through the ordeal with her were her husband and two daughters—Alyssa,13, and Eva, 4. Vasquez was terribly afraid of infecting her daughters and husband. And they were as concerned about her health.

“Alyssa didn’t want me to return to work,” Vasquez says. She kept telling me to go to the hospital whenever she noticed that I wasn’t feeling well.” Most difficult for Vasquez was little Eva’s reaction.

“During the time I was in isolation at home, Eva would cry outside the door and ask why I couldn’t hold her. I would try to console her while I cried on the other side of the door.” “Now I’m better thanks to the support and prayers of everyone from my church,” Vasquez says.

Vulnerable & Dedicated

Some 1199ers with underlying health conditions are also heroically going the extra mile in the battle to defeat COVID-19. 1199 Magazine spoke with two such members from Vassar Brothers Medical Center in Poughkeepsie.

Kevin Gyseck-Strauss, a lead sonographer in Vassar’s ultrasound department, was born with polystatic kidney disease. He had a kidney transplant in 1996 and today takes 21 pills each day to prevent his body from rejecting the transplant.

Because he is immunocompromised he is at high risk for severe illness from a virus infection. “I was dealing with COVID patients when I received a letter in late March from the Montefiore Transplant Center where I had been a patient suggesting that I should not be working.” Gyseck- Strauss says. “I hesitated, but remembered what my mother always told me, ‘Listen to the doctor.’” Gyseck-Strauss took an unpaid leave in April, but returned to work in May when the situation at Vassar was more settled.

Al Bruno, a Vassar HVAC worker, is a bladder cancer survivor. “I was declared cancer-free two years ago,” he says proudly. He helps to transform hospital rooms into Airborne Infection Isolation Rooms (AIIR). “My work is not clinical, but occasionally I have to go into patients’ rooms with the full PPE,” he says. “I try to be in a good mood, and I feel that we have proper equipment and are following protocol.

Since returning, Gyseck-Strauss has sounded a note of caution. “I hope Gov. Cuomo, our elected officials and the people do the right thing,” he warns. “We can’t afford to give into boredom and exhaustion. It’s too early to celebrate. This battle is not over.”

1199 Magazine | May / June 2020