Friday the 13th lived up to its ill-omened reputation this past March for Dr. Santo Terranova.
That was the day the 43-year-old neurologist and father of two was told he was being transferred from his clinic on Long Island to two affiliated hospitals in nearby Manhasset — both admitting COVID-19 patients at an alarming rate. The next day, New York City reported its first death from the disease — a harbinger of the grim weeks that would follow.
“The weeks after my reassignment were overwhelming,” said Dr. Terranova, a member of Father Thomas F. Connolly Council 5314 in Bayville, N.Y. “We were afraid to go to work, but for me the love of God and serving others in need superseded the fear and the unknown.”
During the peak of the pandemic in New York City — from late March to early April — Terranova’s hospitals were treating about 1,000 infected patients at a time. By the beginning of May, that number had finally tapered off to about 200.
“While we were spread thin, we still managed to attend to all the patients we had to see,” said Terranova, who personally treated hundreds of patients, including many with seizures or strokes associated with the virus. While most of his patients recovered, around 5% did not; for intubated patients the mortality rate approached 20%.
Every day, he came face-to-face with human suffering — not only the physical pain of those affected by the virus, but their emotional pain as they were forced to weather the illness alone. To stem the contagion, no family, friends or chaplains were permitted into the sealed-off coronavirus wings of the hospitals. Doctors, nurses and other hospital staff were patients’ only human contact and support for as long as they were infected.
Yet in the midst of the darkness, glimmers of light entered the coronavirus wards.
Dr. Terranova recalled a young and usually healthy man who had been so weakened by COVID-19 that he needed to be spoon-fed by the hospital staff. The man was overcome with emotion and gratitude by the care he received.
“For something like this to happen made him appreciate even the simplest of things,” Terranova said.
After treating him, Dr. Terranova’s medical team had a brainstorm. They asked for permission to form an emotional support team of available nurses, social workers and others to minister to coronavirus patients who asked for someone to keep them company.
Soon, each floor had a designated staffer who could come and sit with patients and help them with “whatever they needed — food, help with a meal, or just to cry or laugh with,” Terranova said. “It definitely made a big difference.”
He recalled visiting with a woman in her early 40s who came to the emergency room with new-onset seizure and respiratory issues from COVID-19. Within 24 hours she had been put on a ventilator, and she stayed dependent on it for three weeks. She was afraid she would never see her two young children again, and the hospital staff also began to lose hope that she would survive.
“There were days when we really thought she was going to pass away,” Terranova admitted. “Miraculously, she pulled through this past week.”
The uncertainty does not end when Dr. Terranova goes home. Even though he is covered head to toe in protective gear while at work, he is self-quarantining from his family when he comes home at night. By early May, he had been in quarantine for seven weeks, living in a small downstairs section of his house with a living room, kitchenette and bathroom.
“I do wear a mask at home and kind of just keep myself restricted to that area,” he said. “You think you’ll leave the hospital and go home and get some relief, but no, you have to be really cautious at home as well.”
Though his wife, 8-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son understand why he has to keep his distance for the time being, it has been a challenge.
“Not even being able to sit at the table and eat dinner with them — that’s been very hard,” Terranova said.
As the weather has warmed, Terranova and his family have started taking walks outside, with everyone wearing a mask and maintaining a 6-foot distance from him.
“At least I get to see them, we talk,” he said. “So at least I feel we have some togetherness outdoors.”
The situation at home, at the hospitals and across New York City in general has drastically improved since April. At that time, Terranova’s greatest fear, he said, was that New York would begin to look like northern Italy, where resources became scarce and some COVID-19 patients went without adequate care.
“Thank God that wasn’t the case here,” he said.
As Dr. Terranova continues to perform his work and make personal sacrifices, he said his faith has given him the courage to persevere until the job is done.
“What I do each day at work brings me joy because I am bringing comfort and care,” he said. “It reminds me of what Mother Teresa said: Every time you put your love in action to serve those in need, you’re loving God himself.
MAIREAD McARDLE is a news reporter for National Review Online based in New York City.
DR. MARK PAMER had treated a few coronavirus patients with mild symptoms at his private Florida practice in April, but he felt called to do more. When the pandemic tightened its grip on New York City, he traveled there to volunteer his time and skills as a pulmonary/critical care physician.
“In Florida, I didn’t see anything like the devastation here,” he said in early May, his tone conveying the magnitude of the crisis in the New York communities he was serving. “I had somebody die yesterday; I had somebody die today; I had a guy who almost died right as I was leaving.”
Dr. Pamer left behind his wife and children, including a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old, to work for a month at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, beginning April 27.
“I wanted to come help people and live the Gospel, live the sacraments,” said Pamer, a past grand knight of Port St. Lucie (Fla.) Council 7514. “Sometimes you just know you have to go somewhere and help. You feel it in your heart.”
Dr. Pamer was particularly inspired by Christ’s parable of the Last Judgment, in which the king says, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40).
“I try to live my life by that passage,” Pamer said.
During normal times, a hospital’s intensive care unit might have between 10 and 20 people on ventilators at a time, Pamer explained. In the worst weeks, Elmhurst had more than 150 people intubated simultaneously, with most of those patients dying from COVID-19.
By the time Dr. Pamer arrived, the number of patients had decreased, but the pandemic was “still raging,” he said. Other sections of the hospital had been converted into ICUs because of the overload of patients who required ventilators and IV drips.
Though physically drained at the end of each grueling workday, Pamer said he received strength from the camaraderie of the staff and especially the other volunteer personnel, who traveled from all over the country to help.
“We’re seeing the best of humanity here,” Pamer affirmed. “God stamps it on our heart to love each other and to help each other.”
Gestures of appreciation were encouraging too — like a flyover by the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds, the giant “thank you” sign across the street from the hospital, and people clapping for health care workers when he left work.
But his greatest source of strength has been his faith, his love for his family, and the conviction that this was his vocation.
“This is what I’m made for, and there’s a fountain of energy that keeps me going,” he said. “I feel like I’m doing God’s work.”
— Reported by Mairead McArdle
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