Ahead of this year’s National Doctors’ Day on Tuesday, March 30, Doctors Council SEIU and NYC Health + Hospitals celebrated the city’s doctors for their heroic work throughout the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic at Elmhurst Hospital.
On March 25, more than three dozen white coats, several local elected officials, healthcare advocates and community members gathered outside of Elmhurst Hospital — what was the “epicenter of the epicenter” at the height of the pandemic last year — to recognize the selfless and dedicated healthcare workers who provided the best possible care to one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in New York City.
While the event commemorated doctors and hospital staff for their grit and lifesaving care, the doctors who spoke couldn’t help but reflect on what was a brutal year on the frontlines.
“Doctors Council SEIU represents frontline doctors and we know all too well the devastation over the past year that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the patients and communities of New York City, especially those in communities of color,” said Dr. Frank Proscia, president of Doctors Council SEIU.
Proscia, who hosted the event, said that in their organization’s nearly 50-year history, they “never experienced anything like this.” He recalled hearing from fellow doctors about how they had to isolate from their families so as to not infect their loved ones and dealt with a lack of personal protective equipment and short supply of equipment and space. They also heard from their family members, who feared for their lives.
One year into the pandemic, New York lost more than 50,000 people due to the virus, including 53 NYC Health + Hospitals workers, Proscia noted. An investigation by The Guardian and KHN reports more than 3,500 deaths among healthcare workers in the U.S., with 452 in New York alone.
“These essential workers, all of them, put their lives on the line each and every day, and they should be commended for that,” Proscia said. “These people are examples that this city will get through this — one way or another, we will get through this.”
Dr. Jasmin Moshirpur, chief medical officer at Elmhurst Hospital, remembered she received an email on Feb. 26, 2020, stating that Elmhurst and Bellevue Hospitals were to receive COVID-19 patients.
Because they dealt with many pandemics and epidemics in the past, Moshirpur took it as just another outbreak they had to deal with, and “Elmhurst’s team, as usual, is always ready for that.”
But that quickly changed, as Elmhurst became overwhelmed with patients. She said they were later able to cope thanks to the Navy, Army, FEMA and city resources they called for.
She was glad to report that many many people were able to walk out of the hospital, and that they have vaccinated more than 25,000 people to combat the virus.
NYC Health + Hospitals President and CEO Dr. Mitchell Katz thanked healthcare providers for playing a critical role during the pandemic, and spoke of the mental toll it’s had on them.
“We all saw death in a way that as doctors we never anticipated in terms of the volume. All of us who went into medicine and became doctors understood that sometimes we would lose patients, we also understood that sometimes our profession would put us at risk — but I don’t think any of us, before COVID, understood how great that could be,” Katz said.
Katz added that while it’s understandable for healthcare workers to think about how they could’ve done things differently to save more lives, they saved many lives, nonetheless.
“The vast majority of people, even in the darkest days, left the hospital alive,” he said. “And had it not been for us intubating them, oxygenating them, taking care of them, putting them on medicines, they wouldn’t have.”
NYC Health + Hospitals treated more than 160,000 patients, including 4,000 people at the peak of the pandemic in March and April of 2020, according to the agency. More than 15,000 COVID-19 patients have returned home since.
Dr. Jasmine Dove, an attending surgeon at Elmhurst for more than 15 years, spoke to her fellow “battered heroes of Elmhurst and H+H hospitals.”
“We were all doctors taking on any and all roles, and we must acknowledge the wonderful nurses, respiratory techs, X-ray techs, pharmacists, housekeeping, food service, material management, mortuary, and the list goes on and on — and all of the silent, invisible staff that keep the hospital running for us during this time and all others,” Dove said. “And we did this, isolating from our loved ones, just like our patients. Terrified of dying, just like our patients. Devastated on the days when it felt like we could not save anyone from this virus.”
She said doctors and healthcare workers never would have described themselves as heroes.
“Nerds and geeks in white coats having aha moments perhaps, but not superheroes,” she said. “Well, after the past year, I can think of no other word or way to describe you or I or us.”
State Senators Toby Ann Stavisky and Jessica Ramos, as well as Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, attended the event to thank the doctors, physicians and nurses, and vowed to fight any cuts in funding for the public health system in this year’s state budget.
Cruz commended the doctors and healthcare workers for finding the strength to fight back the virus.
“You were trained to save lives, you were trained to help our community, but what we went through last year, I have absolutely no clue how you did it,” Cruz said. “And for that we are eternally grateful, for that we are in awe.”
She spoke about her own family contracting COVID-19, and how the doctors at Elmhurst gave her hope that they’d be OK and helped them recover. She thanked them for treating all patients — regardless of their immigration status, their language or their background — with the best care.
Cruz, who a few days prior joined the New York State Nurses Association to protest Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed $600 million budget cuts to public hospitals, said they ensure the $20 million cuts proposed for Elmhurst Hospital won’t occur.
“You deserve better than that,” Cruz said. “It’s not enough to go out at 7 o’clock and clap, enough of that. Now, we have to do more.”
Ramos reflected on how the state should have left healthcare professionals lead the response to the pandemic and emphasized the need for safe staffing in hospitals.
“If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we have to listen to you and the New York State Nurses Association when we’re told that we need a better staff-to-patient ratio, that we need more hospital beds,” Ramos said. “It’s not lost on us that we’ve closed five hospitals in Queens over the past 20 years […] it’s a damn shame that here in Queens, the most diverse corner of the country where we all show everybody else how much we care about each other, we don’t put our money where our mouth is. So that’s going to have to change, especially as we continue to push for the New York Health Act, because that’s really what we need. We need every single New Yorker to have guaranteed high-quality healthcare in New York state.”
On behalf of Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, Deputy President Rhonda Binda said the borough owes a “huge debt of gratitude to the doctors who have and continue to give so much” of themselves to the well-being of the community.
“The great work of Elmhurst staff attending COVID-19 patients, along with their skill and dedication in truly addressing other health concerns, is inspirational and worth acknowledging and celebrating not only today, but every day,” Binda said.
Elmhurst Hospital’s new CEO Helen Arteaga Landaverde spoke about witnessing an “aha” moment from a group of residents, and the wave of gratitude she felt, not only as the hospital’s leader, but also as a patient.
“Those sparks just made my day … This is what making doctors of the future means,” Landaverde said, noting that those sparks take time and oftentimes sleepless nights. “I know you’re here when we need to call you, you never say no, and I know it’s because of that spark — that spark where you figure something out, not for yourself but for others.”
Suzanne Bentley, an emergency care physician who’s worked at Elmhurst for more than 10 years, gave a stirring speech recounting the difficult days of a packed ER she described as a battleground.
“We will never forget what we’ve been through and what we’ve been through together. Many of us are not OK, whatever ‘OK’ even means, and we won’t be for some time to come,” Bentley said. “And that should be expected and supported, because that is reality. But we are strong and we are healing, as individuals and collectively.”
Bentley, a leader of Helping Healers Heal, a program to help healthcare workers address emotional stress and burnout, implored everyone — doctors and the public alike — to allow themselves to feel whatever they do, to lean on one another and to seek the mental health support so many will need to move forward from COVID.
“As the case rates are declining, the vaccination rates are climbing, and even the weather feels more optimistic, let’s look together towards the future, the future that is so, so bright,” Bentley said. “We remain in this together because we are Elmhurst strong, we are Health and Hospitals strong and we are Doctors Council strong.”