Originally Published on KHN.org
Melissa Bailey, Kaiser Health News and Alastair Gee, The Guardian and Christina Jewett and Ankita Rao, The Guardian and Danielle Renwick, The Guardian and Sarah Varney, Kaiser Health News April 24, 2020
America’s health care workers are dying. In some states, medical staff account for as many as 20% of known coronavirus cases. They tend to patients in hospitals, treating them, serving them food and cleaning their rooms. Others at risk work in nursing homes or are employed as home health aides.
Some of them do not survive the encounter. Many hospitals are overwhelmed and some workers lack protective equipment or suffer from underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to the highly infectious virus.
Many cases are shrouded in secrecy. “Lost on the Frontline” is an ongoing project by Kaiser Health News and The Guardian that aims to document the lives of health care workers in the U.S. who died from COVID 19, and to investigate why so many are victims of the disease.
These are some of the first tragic cases.
Surgical Technician Made Friends Everywhere She Went
(Courtesy of Jorge Casarez)
Monica Echeverri Casarez
Age: 49Occupation: Surgical technicianPlace of Work: Detroit Medical Center Harper University Hospital in DetroitDate of Death: April 11, 2020
Monica Echeverri Casarez was in constant motion, said her husband, Jorge Casarez. The daughter of Colombian immigrants, she worked as a Spanish-English interpreter in clinical settings. She was the kind of person whose arrival at a mom and pop restaurant would elicit hugs from the owners. She also co-founded Southwest Detroit Restaurant Week, a nonprofit that supports local businesses.
Twice a month, she scrubbed in as a surgical technician at Harper University Hospital. “She liked discovering the beauty of how the body works and how science is clear and orderly,” Casarez said. She was organized and intuitive, qualities that are assets in the operating room. On March 21, she posted a photo of herself in protective gear with the caption: “I’d be lying if I said I wan’t at least a bit nervous to be there now.” Since many elective surgeries had been canceled, Echeverri Casarez was tasked with taking the temperatures of people who walked into the hospital and making sure their hands were sterilized.
Soon after, Echeverri Casarez and Casarez began feeling ill. Quarantined together, Echeverri Casarez tried to make the best of the situation. She baked her husband a cake — chocolate with white frosting. She died a few days later.
— Danielle Renwick, The Guardian | Published April 24, 2020
“My dad was fascinated with the brain and with science,” Jennifer Sclar said. “His work was his passion, and it’s what made him the happiest, besides my brother and me.” Set to retire in June, he was looking forward to writing about politics and neurology.
Gary Sclar saw patients who were showing COVID-19 symptoms and knew his age and underlying health conditions ― he had diabetes — put him at risk for developing complications from the illness. His daughter pleaded with him to stop going to the hospital.
In early April, he mentioned having lost his sense of smell, and on April 8 he collapsed in his home. He was hospitalized a few days later and agreed to be intubated. “I don’t think he realized, like, that this was the end,” Jennifer Sclar said. “He brought his keys. He brought his wallet.”
For Jhoanna Mariel Buendia, her aunt was a constant ― if distant — presence. Araceli Buendia Ilagan emigrated from their hometown Baguio, in the Philippines, to the U.S. before Buendia was born, but she remained close to her family and communicated with them nearly every day.
“She was one of the smartest people I ever knew,” Buendia, 27, said. Buendia Ilagan, who at one point looked into adopting her niece so she could join her and her husband the United States, encouraged Buendia to become a nurse, and talked her through grueling coursework in anatomy and physiology. Buendia is now a nurse in London.
The last time the two spoke, in late March, Buendia Ilagan didn’t mention anything about feeling ill. Instead, the two commiserated over their experiences of treating patients with COVID-19; as always, her aunt offered her advice on staying safe while giving the best possible care. She died four days later.
Dr. Leo Dela Cruz was nervous about going to work in the weeks before he died, his friends said. Like many in the region, Christ Hospital had an influx of COVID-19 patients and faced a shortage of ventilators and masks.
Dela Cruz was a geriatric psychiatrist and didn’t work in coronavirus wards. But he continued to see patients in person. In early April, Dela Cruz, who lived alone, complained only of migraines, his friends said. Within a week, his condition worsened, and he was put on a ventilator at a nearby hospital. He died soon after.
Friends said he may have been exposed at the hospital. (In a statement, hospital representatives said he didn’t treat COVID-19 patients.)
Dela Cruz, the oldest of 10 siblings, came from a family of health care professionals. His friends and family — from Cebu, Philippines, to Teaneck, New Jersey — remembered his jovial personality on Facebook. He won “best doctor of the year” awards, played tennis and cooked traditional Cebu dishes.
Nida Gonzales, a colleague, said he always supported people, whether funding a student’s education or running a church mental health program. “I feel like I lost a brother,” she said.
— Ankita Rao, The Guardian | Published April 22, 2020
Rose Harrison, 60, lived to serve others ― her husband, three daughters, grandchildren and the residents of the nursing home where she worked. Though the Alabama nurse was selfless, she also had a sassy edge to her personality and a penchant for road rage, her daughter, Amanda Williams said.
Williams was not wearing a mask when she cared for a patient who later tested positive for COVID-19 at Marion Regional Nursing Home in Hamilton, Alabama, her daughter said. She later developed a cough, fatigue and a low-grade fever, but kept reporting to duty all week. Officials from the nursing home did not return calls for comment.
On April 3, Williams drove her mother to a hospital. The following evening, Harrison discussed the option of going on a ventilator with loved ones on a video call, agreeing it was the best course. Williams believed that her mother fully expected to recover. She died April 6.
At a shelter for adults recovering from addiction, residents looked forward to the days when Marion “Curtis” Hunt would take the stage, emceeing talent shows and belting out Broadway and gospel tunes.
It wasn’t part of his job description as a social worker. It was just one of the ways he went “above and beyond,” said his supervisor at Cornell Scott-Hill Health Center, Daena Murphy. “He had a beautiful voice,” she said. “He was just a wonderful person — funny, engaging, always a huge smile on his face.”
Hunt, the youngest of four brothers, earned his master’s in social work from Fordham University at 52, and was baptized at his brother’s Pentecostal church at 54. He was a devoted uncle who doted on his dog and cat, Mya and Milo.
It’s unclear how Hunt got infected, but one patient he worked with had tested positive for COVID-19, as did two co-workers, according to Dr. Ece Tek, another supervisor at Cornell Scott-Hill Health Center. Hunt died on March 23, one week after developing flu-like symptoms, said his brother John Mann Jr.
Kim King-Smith was a natural caregiver. An only child, she grew up close to her extended family, including her cousins Hassana Salaam-Rivers and Sharonda Salaam. After Salaam developed multiple sclerosis, King-Smith visited her every day.
“She’d bring her sweets that she wasn’t supposed to have and share them with her,” Salaam-Rivers said. King-Smith’s desire to care for others was the reason she became an electrocardiogram technician, her cousin added. “If a friend of a friend or family member went to the hospital, she would always go and visit them as soon as her shift was over,” she said.
In March, King-Smith cared for a patient she said had symptoms of COVID-19; she soon fell ill herself and tested positive for the virus. It seemed like a mild case at first, and she stayed in touch with family via FaceTime while trying to isolate from her husband, Lenny.
On March 29, Salaam-Rivers checked in on her cousin and noticed she was struggling to breathe. She urged her to call an ambulance. After King-Smith was hospitalized, she exchanged text messages with her mother and cousin. As the day progressed, her messages carried increasingly grave news, Salaam-Rivers said. Then she stopped responding.
Nurse Divina “Debbie” Accad had cared for veterans for over 25 years and was set to retire in April. But after contracting the novel coronavirus, she spent her final 11 days on a ventilator — and didn’t survive past March.
She was born Divina Amo in the Philippine town of Alimodian, known for its sweet bananas. The eldest of four children, she was a precocious student. She finished high school at age 14 and had to wait a year to pursue her dream of nursing school. She graduated from Central Philippine University with a bachelor’s in nursing in 1969.
Yearning to move abroad, she applied to a “fly now, pay later” program for nurses and landed a job in Chicago, joining tens of thousands of Filipino nurses who have migrated to the United States. She later moved to Taylor, Michigan, where she married William Accad in 1985 and raised four children with him.
Her niece April Amada lives in Accad’s hometown. She remembers her aunt as a generous cook: A visit from Tita Debbie (Aunt Debbie) meant unli-kainan, or “unlimited food”: She served up big American breakfasts, cooked spicy kielbasa with cabbage and introduced her family to Jell-O.
Accad was the “pillar of the family,” Amada said, improving their quality of life by sending home money, and even supporting her younger sister through nursing school.
Amada said her aunt first signaled she was sick on the evening of March 16, telling relatives she had a fever and loose stool. On March 19, she reported feeling better by taking Tylenol. But the following day, she was hospitalized with pneumonia, a complication of COVID-19. She told her family in the Philippines that she had tested positive for the disease caused by the coronavirus and asked them to pray for her and to spread the word to local pastors, Amada said.
Amada, who is also a nurse, said her family felt helpless watching their beloved matriarch suffer from afar, and being unable to travel to her bedside because of the infectious nature of the disease. They last saw her face on a video call.
Mark Accad, 36, who lives across the street from his parents, said his mother had diabetes, a risk factor for serious complications from COVID-19. In her last phone call with him, he said, she was preoccupied with her family’s health more than her own. But he could hear in her voice that she was worried.
“It’s just terrible that we all couldn’t be there for her,” he said.
Mark Accad said he believes his mother was exposed by infected co-workers, though that hasn’t been confirmed. She was a nursing supervisor who often stepped in to care for patients, he said.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is facing serious shortages in protective equipment for its health care workers, according to internal memos obtained by The Wall Street Journal. Mark Accad said he doesn’t know whether his mother had adequate protective gear.
In a statement, the Detroit VA Medical Center declined to comment on Accad’s case, citing privacy concerns, but confirmed that an employee of her age died from coronavirus complications.
The VA has “implemented appropriate measures to ensure the safest health care environment for each Veteran, visitor and employee,” including immediately isolating patients known to be at risk for a COVID-19 infection. As of Monday, nine VA health care workers systemwide had died of COVID-19 complications, and over 1,500 were being quarantined because of coronavirus infections, according to VA spokesperson Christina Noel.
Mark Accad said he would like his mother’s story to raise awareness of the risks health care workers face in the global pandemic.
“She’s a hero for what she did,” he said.
— Melissa Bailey | Published April 15, 2020
Jeff Baumbach, 57, was a seasoned nurse of 28 years when the novel coronavirus began to circulate in California. He’d worked in the ER, the ICU and on a cardiac floor. Hepatitis and tuberculosis had been around over the years but never posed a major concern. He’d cared for patients who had tuberculosis.
Within weeks, he would wage a difficult and steady fight against the virus that ended with a sudden collapse. Across the U.S., dozens of other health care workers have died, according to reports compiled by The Guardian and Kaiser Health News. The CDC has not yet issued a full tally, and many states have said little about how many health workers are dying.
Jeff was working at St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Stockton, California, about an hour south of Sacramento, where he was a case manager for Kaiser Permanente patients treated there. (Kaiser Health News is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.)
In mid-March, Jeff and his wife traveled to New York City to help their younger son, one of four adult children, settle into an apartment. As they were leaving, bars and restaurants were starting to shut down. The feeling set in that something serious was taking place.
Back home, Karen said her husband was notified that he may have been around a co-worker who tested positive for the coronavirus. Jeff would need to wear a mask. On March 23, he called in sick. The next day, he was told to get a COVID-19 test.
Their home had been the site of countless family brunches and barbecues, for which Jeff was often the chef. It was where he solved massive jigsaw puzzles with his kids, sealed them together and put them on the ceiling of the garage.
Kaila Baumbach, 26, the last child living in their Lodi home, had moved out as a precaution. She and her dad were close. They had gotten tattoos together on a family trip to Hawaii. Hers, a peace sign. His had two large Celtic hearts and four smaller ones to represent his children. Kaila said she didn’t text or call her dad when he was sick.
“We both sat here all those days with him getting worse before my eyes and me not seeing it,” she said. “The doctor reassured me that several times people have seemed to be OK and then they just fall off and then it’s just too late.”
The next day, Kaila organized about 50 family and loved ones to drive by the couple’s home and shine their phone flashlights to show support. Karen’s mother, Sharleen Leal, called her at 8 p.m.: “Look outside.”
Daisy Doronila had a different perspective than most who worked at the Hudson County Correctional Facility, a New Jersey lockup 11 miles from Manhattan. It was a place where the veteran nurse could put her Catholic faith into action, showing kindness to marginalized people.
“There would be people there for the most heinous crimes,” said her daughter, Denise Rendor, 28, “but they would just melt towards my mother because she really was there to give them care with no judgment.”
Doronila, 60, died April 5, two weeks after testing positive for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The jail has been hit hard by the virus, with 27 inmates and 68 staff members having tested positive. Among those, another nurse, a correctional officer and a clerk also died, according to Ron Edwards, Hudson County’s director of corrections.
Doronila fell ill before the scope of the jail infections were known. She was picking up extra shifts in the weeks before, her daughter said, and planning on a trip to Israel soon with friends from church.
Doronila, of Nutley, New Jersey, went to her doctor and a local hospital in the coming days but was told she had strep throat, so she wouldn’t get a coronavirus test. Then she was told her fever wasn’t high enough to merit a test.
“She was one of my hardest workers,” he said, describing her as sophisticated, intelligent and compassionate. “Daisy could handle herself. If someone got obnoxious with her, she’d put them in their place and call for help if she needed to.”
Her oxygen saturation level was 77 ― far below levels that should be close to 100 — so she was sent by ambulance to the hospital. The next day, she was transferred to the ICU, where she was put on a ventilator, never to talk to her family again.
Alvin Simmons started working as a custodian at Rochester General Hospital, in New York state, weeks before he fell ill. “He loved helping people and he figured the best place to do that would be in a hospital,” his sister, Michelle Wilcox said.
An Army veteran who had served in the first Gulf War, Simmons loved karaoke and doted on his three grandchildren, Wilcox said. “He was a dedicated, hardworking individual who had just changed his life around” since a prison stint, she said.
According to Wilcox, Simmons began developing symptoms shortly after cleaning the room of a woman he believed was infected with the novel coronavirus. “Other hospital employees did not want to clean the room because they said they weren’t properly trained” to clean the room of someone potentially infected, she said. “They got my brother from a different floor, because he had just started there,” she said. (In an email, a hospital spokesperson said they had “no evidence to suggest that Mr. Simmons was at a heightened risk of exposure to COVID-19 by virtue of his training or employment duties at RGH.”)
On March 11, he visited the emergency room at Rochester General, where he was tested for COVID-19, Wilcox said. Over the next few days, as he rested at his girlfriend’s home, his breathing became more labored and he began to cough up blood. He was rushed to the hospital on March 13, where he was later declared brain-dead. Subsequently, he received a COVID-19 diagnosis. Simmons died on March 17.
“It’s pretty devastating. It’s surreal. Reno’s not that big of a city,” said Robyn Underhill, a night nurse who worked with Thompson in the ER at Reno’s VA hospital the past two years.
Thompson, who dreamed of teaching nursing one day, died April 7, joining a growing list of health care professionals killed in the pandemic.
Born Vianna Fye in Port Huron, Michigan, she became a go-getter nurse who worked almost exclusively at night, putting in five or six 12-hour shifts a week, according to her husband, Bob Thompson, 60.
The couple met in 1991 on the Osan Air Base in South Korea, where he was an inventory management specialist in the Air Force, and she was a veterinary technician in the Army, caring for military police dogs. They bonded over two-step dancing and country music.
Vianna was a “proud momma,” often showing off photos and videos of their three sons on her phone, her husband said. As the main breadwinner for over eight years, she juggled two jobs to make sure her boys had everything they needed, including saxophones, drums and keyboards so they could play jazz and country music. “She was just sweet, big-hearted, caring, unselfish,” he said.
Before she died, Thompson was working two jobs: full time in the ER at the VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System in Reno, and part time in the ICU at Northern Nevada Medical Center.
In the ICU, she tended to a fellow VA health care worker who had fallen ill with COVID-19, according to nurse Underhill. Two days later, on March 29, Thompson arrived at work with a cough.
“She came to work sick, and we were all very concerned,” Underhill said. “Call it intuition, call it ‘Spidey sense,’ but I knew that moment that she was coughing that this was not going to end well.”
Underhill said Thompson already had a slight smoker’s cough, so she may have overlooked the fact that her cough was a classic symptom of COVID-19.
“She was in denial that she was taking care of this high-risk population,” Underhill said. And she was reluctant to miss work.
That Sunday shift would be Thompson’s last. Over the next four days, she wrestled with fever, weakness and shortness of breath. The following Thursday, she texted her husband from the bedroom: “Call the ambulance, I can hardly breathe.”
She was taken to the VA hospital where she worked and immediately sedated and put on a ventilator.
The next Tuesday, her organs were failing and it was time to remove life support, her husband said. They connected him on FaceTime to say goodbye, and a nurse held her hand as she died.
As a veteran, she qualified for an “honor flight,” in which the patient’s body is covered with a black box, draped with an American flag and wheeled through the hospital while others line up and salute.
Because of the infectious nature of the coronavirus, a flag could not be safely draped over her body, so someone walked in front of her with a flag.
Bob Thompson said the honor flight ceremony drew more people into the hallways than staff had seen in 20 years, “all the way from the ICU to the morgue.”
“God’s getting a hell of a nurse,” he said.
— Melissa Bailey | Published April 15, 2020
Dr. J. Ronald Verrier, a surgeon at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, spent the final weeks of his audacious, unfinished life tending to a torrent of patients inflicted with COVID-19. He died April 8 at Mount Sinai South Nassau Hospital in Oceanside, New York, at age 59, after falling ill from the novel coronavirus.
Verrier led the charge even as the financially strapped St. Barnabas Hospital struggled to find masks and gowns to protect its workers — many nurses continue to make cloth masks — and makeshift morgues in the parking lot held patients who had died.
Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Verrier graduated from the Faculté de Médecine et de Pharmacie in 1986 and trained at Lincoln Medical Center in the Bronx. He worked at St. Barnabas for two decades, performing thousands of surgeries on critically ill patients and trauma victims, while overseeing the general surgery residency program.
A towering presence with a wide, dimpled smile, Verrier watched his large flock closely — popping into patients’ rooms for impromptu birthday parties, pressing his medical school residents to sharpen their surgical skills and extinguishing doubt in bright, young minds.
“He kept pushing me forward,” said Dr. Christina Pardo, a cousin who became an obstetrician and gynecologist. “I would call him and say, ‘I swear I failed that test,’ and he would laugh. He was my confidence when I didn’t have it.”
Verrier, who spoke English, French and Creole, zipped around to a niece’s wedding in Belgium, a baptism in Florida, another wedding in Montreal. In February, he ferried medical supplies to Haiti, returning to St. Barnabas to fortify the hospital for the surge of coronavirus patients.
Worse, though, was the limited availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) — the masks and gloves that help keep health care workers from getting sick and spreading the virus to others. Gabrin said he had no choice but to don the same mask for several shifts, against Food and Drug Administration guidelines.
— Alastair Gee, The Guardian | Published April 10, 2020
This story is part of “Lost on the Frontline,” a project from The Guardian and Kaiser Health News that aims to document the life of every health care worker in America who dies from COVID-19 during the pandemic. If you have a colleague or loved one we should include, please share their story.