Laib From New York: Volunteering In The Empire State

Written by Rick Laib

I do not particularly regard myself as rebellious, so when the initial set of executive orders came out limiting our outside movement, I was content to abide. I did what most of you did: I stayed in.

But then Governor Cuomo, the Governor of New York, started asking for help. He said, “I am asking health care professionals across the country, if you don’t have a health care crisis in your community, please come help us in New York right now.” I, of course, cannot be contained. But more importantly I was happy to help. I still hold an active Illinois EMT license and have some advanced training in respiratory care. My work was slow, I was not actively contributing to anything at home, and so I signed up.

The following is my experience.

My first step was to register as a volunteer. I do not have a registered health care license in New York, so I needed to register with ServNY before doing anything else. Once I did that, I was able to register with the New York City Medical Reserve Corps. After being emailed log-in information, I was able to see where the medical needs were in New York. Of the roughly 30 hospitals listed, two were looking for EMTs. I sent emails to both hospitals. One hospital called me the next morning advising that they could use help. They had no commitment requests with respect to time, only whatever I was willing to contribute. I scheduled two weeks of vacation at work and set to making plans.

It is not entirely secret where I volunteered. Nevertheless, this post is intended to be more about my experience than it is a reporting of hospital practice. For that reason, I will simply identify the hospital I served at as NY HOSPITAL.

Total cost for flights to travel round trip Chicago to New York back to Chicago: $107.

As you might expect, there were very few people at the airport. I have seen the airport this empty, but not on a weekday morning. Only a few restaurants were open. There were 27 people on my flight out (one person per row). Everyone was very quiet and kept to him/herself.

Another category of individuals that kept to themselves: Uber drivers. I have used Uber drivers in many different states and they all seem to be chatty. Not in New York, at least not now. Some drivers even erected protective barriers between themselves and passengers.

My first stop in New York was to be medically cleared. I was seen by three nurses and technicians, each with New York accents richer than the next. It was determined that I would work at NY HOSPITAL in the morgue. That was the present and most pressing need for workers, and I would simply be moving bodies. I was hoping to contribute in more of a technical capacity, but the morgue had been hit so hard and so quickly that NY HOSPITAL was forced to pull workers from other divisions to help. I resolved that my presence allowed security workers, nurses, technicians, and others with more industry-specific knowledge to return to their regular assignments.

One of the biggest surprises that we non-New Yorkers learned when COVID-19 initially hit was that hospitals in New York were using refrigerator trucks to store bodies. While this is true, a little bit of context might be helpful: most morgues are not that big. The morgue refrigerator at NY HOSPITAL is about 15’ x 5’. This is pretty standard but is still just not a lot of space. When evaluating the impact of a pandemic, the question is not whether or not refrigerator trucks were employed. Rather, the question would be, “How many were employed?”

As is the case with any need, hospitals were forced to get creative and at NY HOSPITAL we used three. I was told some hospitals had five, and there was yet another hospital that had seven.

The deceased (both COVID-19 patients and non-COVID-19 patients) were brought to the morgue, logged in, and prepared to be stored in one of the refrigerators where they would await pickup from funeral directors or family members. I was told just prior to my arrival carts would line the hallways, waiting to be processed as bodies were being brought in so quickly. I was also told that at the height of the activity morgue attendants would not wait for bodies to be brought to the morgue—they would pick them up directly from the ER, prepare them, and move them right to storage.

I was not the only volunteer. I met a man from Nevada who served as an advisor, a professor from Queens who was volunteering while school was on lockdown, and another local New Yorker who worked as a physical therapist. The Human Resources manager at NY HOSPITAL was managing roughly 100 volunteers during this time. Funeral directors also came to New York to help; I met volunteer funeral directors from both Florida and California.

Hospitals are no stranger to illness. The cultural concern, I think, is the number of deaths that COVID-19 could potentially bring. Regardless of the fact that we are going to die, it appeared to me that improvements were being made, and working in the morgue I was in an ideal location to evaluate this. It is not my intention to communicate that the threats of the Coronavirus in New York have passed. What I can communicate, in my experience, at the one hospital that I was at, is that things are getting better. Consider, again, at NY HOSPITAL:

-The observations I relayed about the large quantity of bodies being brought in were historical. It “happened,” it was not “happening.” I did not observe it. I was told about it.

-In the short two weeks I was at NY HOSPITAL, I noticed morgue intakes decreasing. Without citing actual numbers, I will simply say I started bringing a magazine with me in case it got slow. And then when it did start getting slow, I started bringing a book.

-Specialized care areas were being shut down. Prior to my arrival the emergency room opened a wing to handle patient overflow. Over the course of a few days I watched the number of patients decrease. Then I noticed no patients. Then I noticed the lights shut off. And then I noticed the wing completely secured. In another overflow area that was not actively being used but was used prior to my arrival, over the course of a few days I saw lights being shut off, doors being closed, and hand sanitizers, protective gear, and disposal bins being removed and redeployed to other areas of the hospital.

-Plans were being made to reduce the three refrigerator trucks to two refrigerator trucks.

-The Friday before my departure, NY HOSPITAL released its 1,000th COVID-19-free patient. Again without citing too specific a number, the number of virus-free patients released by NY HOSPITAL was greater than the total number of individuals that were brought down to the morgue in the same time frame.

The situation may still get worse. I am in no way saying things are resolved in New York. But at NY HOSPITAL things are getting better.

The present threat of COVID-19 is still being evaluated. Whether or not we should practice the same guidelines is up for debate. Regardless of what happens there will always be ways you can volunteer. If you want to serve in New York, try logging onto Help Now NYC or if you want to volunteer in Illinois, try logging onto Illinois Medical Reserve Corps or Illinois Helps.

Rick Laib can be reached at Article republished with permission.

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