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Coronavirus pandemic reshapes retirement for health care professionals

Richard King gave up the idea of working

Richard King gave up the idea of working per diem after retiring as a phlebotomist because the coronavirus could pose a threat to his wife's health. Retirement plans include more time playing musical instruments, including the trombone. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Sumole Abraham of Deer Park recently ended a more than 30-year career as a nurse at St. Joseph Hospital in Bethpage. Richard King of Brentwood, a phlebotomist at Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center in West Islip, also retired after three decades. Consuelo Gross of Port Jefferson Station said an emotional farewell as the office manager and a dental assistant of an East Setauket practice after nearly 40 years. And Terrie Magro of Hicksville recently ended a 45-year health care career to focus on a nonprofit founded in her son’s name.

“It’s too early to tell if there are increased retirements of health care workers due to COVID,” said Janine Logan, Nassau-Suffolk Hospital Council’s senior director, communications and population health. “A traumatic experience often causes individuals to reassess their lives and make changes, and retirement could be an option.”

While many older health care workers continue as before, some directly or indirectly impacted by COVID-19 are pushing up retirement or changing plans from semiretirement to full retirement. Others, such as Dr. Gerald Cordani, of Huntington Bay, briefly came out of retirement to help.

Research published July 9 by the Becker Friedman Institute For Economics at the University of Chicago pointed to "a wave of earlier than planned retirements" due to COVID-19.

Older workers have long been a big part of the region’s and the nation’s health care workforce: That hasn’t changed, even as some retire.

Judy Howard, Northwell Health’s vice president of talent acquisition, said that “retirees have been and continue to be a critical part of our talent strategy.” She said Northwell is trying to retain people considering retiring by increasing job and scheduling flexibility and recruitment efforts. “There are a lot of opportunities,” she added.

While many older health care workers continue as before, others are bidding often fond farewells to their jobs amid concerns and changes or to focus on other things. Here are stories of some who have stepped back or retired at least in part because of the pandemic.

RN’s RX for Retirement

“I miss the people,” Sumole Abraham, 60, said of departing a job she had done for decades. “I had such a great experience.”

Abraham worked at St. Joseph Hospital in Bethpage for 32 years before retiring June 30. “The question was whether to retire in June or December,” she said. “When the pandemic broke out, I decided to retire. The time has come.”

Abraham, born in Kerala, India, got a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Armed Forces Medical College in Pune, India. She worked as a nurse, then married and came to the United States in 1984. She lived in Astoria for a year before moving to Farmingdale and working at Mid-Island Hospital, now St. Joseph Hospital.

“I was working in the newborn nursery,” she said. “I was helping parents with their children.”

When Mid-Island closed its maternity unit in 2005, Abraham transferred to the operating room, where she worked until scheduled surgeries were canceled because of the COVID-19 outbreak. She assisted other registered nurses on floors transformed to treat COVID-19 patients. “It was difficult,” she said.

Co-workers stopped by the operating room lounge for ice cream cake and goodbyes on her final day. “They are my second family,” Abraham said.

She said her faith has helped sustain her, and she now devotes more time to religious work at New Life Church of God, in Commack, where she and her husband, Jacob, are pastors. “When I work, I have full-time commitment to the job,” said Abraham, who moved to Deer Park in 2008. “Now I have more time for that.”

In his blood

Richard King, 66, of Brentwood, was in the heart of health care for decades, working as a phlebotomist, a person who takes blood, at Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center in West Islip.

“When this pandemic hit, we were right in the middle of it,” he said. “I was seeing the changes. People were sicker than a normal flu.”

King retired March 11 after working for 31 years, canceling plans to continue working on a per diem basis. His wife, Deborah Rossi King, 66, who retired as a nurse at Southside Hospital three years ago, has asthma, and her doctor said Richard’s work could put her at risk.

“I miss people from work. I called my supervisor once or twice. A couple of people live near me,” he said. “I walk past their house when I walk my dogs and I wave at them. One is a seamstress. She made me a mask.”

King's retirement dreams had included music. He plays trombone, baritone horn and tuba in the Harlem Jazz and Blues Band and the group’s Ray’s Blues Band, among others. “After my retirement, I was going straight into music,” he said. “I’m in bands that travel all over the world, but everything’s been shut down.”

He is also vice president of the Harlem-based Friendly Fifty Club and works with the Manhattan-based Jazz Foundation of America, which played monthly at the East Neck Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Babylon.

King performed on July 4 with the Atlantic Community Band in Patchogue on Ocean Avenue and Main Street. “The band was probably bigger than the crowd,” he said of the performance, ordinarily held at Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts. “We were on the street where the parade would have been.”

Although King no longer must wake early for work, he is still up before 6 a.m. to walk his dogs, three Pharaoh Hounds. “I walk a half an hour out and back. I’ll get my wife a coffee before I come home,” King said. “I go early when it’s not crowded.”

Dentist’s dilemma

While the medical response to the pandemic mainly played out at hospitals, it has impacted other aspects of health care. After working for 38 years as an office manager and dental assistant in an East Setauket practice, Consuelo Gross, 70, of Port Jefferson Station, saw things change.

First, the office closed for three months on March 17. When she returned at the end of June, Gross wore more personal protective equipment and smiled, but patients couldn’t see the smile behind the mask.

“I’m spraying everything with disinfectant from doorknobs to chairs,” Gross said of new safety precautions. “Dentistry by its nature creates droplets. That’s a frightening aspect to deal with.”

The big change occurred July 14 when Dr. Warren J. Kahn, the dentist she worked for, saw his last two patients there — his wife and Gross — before closing the office, transferring patients to another practice and moving to Florida. The plan as of the start of the year had been to close, but the pandemic was a tipping point.

“He was hoping to be done by the end of the year,” she said. “COVID put us over.”

The closing led to a long procession of goodbye to patients, some who had been patients for nearly 50 years. “People are crying, saying how could they possibly go to another dentist?” she said. “We treat the grandchildren of patients that we’ve had.”

Gross said that although she found it rewarding to work during the pandemic, it was a different world. “Medicine is about comforting people,” she said. “Patting them on the shoulder as they get an injection, saying, ‘Do you want to squeeze my hand?’ You can’t do any of that.”

Gross, a certified Spanish teacher, could likely find a new job with a dental practice, but she isn’t looking “for the same reason we were quick to close this time.”

An avid tennis player, she now spends more time on the court and with family. “My first inclination is to volunteer in a hospital,” she said of potential for the future. “After having been in the medical field, that’s something I might enjoy.”

Career to cause

In a varied, long career, Terrie Magro, 66, of Hicksville, worked as a nurse at St. Francis and Huntington hospitals, was adjunct faculty at Adelphi University’s undergraduate school of nursing, and sold medical devices.

On June 26, she retired after eight years as a physician liaison at NYU Winthrop Hospital in Mineola. “I was doing two things full time,” said Magro, who with her husband, Paul, founded the Michael Magro Foundation to honor their son who died of leukemia.

The Magros’ son Marc, now 27, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 11 in 2004; their son Michael, at 13, was diagnosed with leukemia in 2004. Michael died about a month later.

“We’re standing there, looking at each other, saying, ‘What do we do and where do we go from here?’” Magro said. “I wanted to keep Michael’s name alive. He’s a kid who loved to bring people together.”

They created the foundation, which they lead out of their home, raising money to provide financial help to families whose children have cancer. The foundation has raised $2.5 million, supporting families, programs and projects at such hospitals as NYU Winthrop, Cohen Children’s Hospital, Stony Brook University Hospital and others.

“Paul and I realized our foundation required more effort on our part to secure the funds to help families in need survive in our current climate,” she said of the impact of the pandemic.

Magro said she expects to stay in touch with people she worked with as she focuses on the foundation. “I’m still very involved with the hospital with the foundation,” she said. “So I will have the opportunity to touch base with these people.”

Back to the future

Like many others, Dr. Gerald Cordani, 75, of Huntington Bay, watched news coverage of the coronavirus. Unlike most, Cordani, who retired from medicine in 2012, knew the physicians speaking on TV.

He had been an intern at Cornell University Medical Center 1970-71, when Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was chief resident. And he knew Dr. Anne Sacks-Berg, an infectious disease specialist in Huntington who came out of retirement and made an impassioned appeal in March on CNN for others to do the same.

“I said, ‘I have to do something,’” Cordani said. “I couldn’t hunker down. My energy level is to do something.” On April 5, Cordani began volunteering as a physician liaison at Huntington Hospital, calling patients’ families and providing other support, through May 1.

“One of the first families I called were old patients of mine,” he said. “I get on the phone and someone yells out, ‘Dr. Cordani!’” As a member of the Mount Sinai Medical Group for 38 years, he was a general internist based at Huntington Hospital.

He recalled helping a man who had recovered from COVID-19 visit his wife, a COVID-19 patient, in the hospital. “She perked up and survived and wound up getting out of the hospital,” Cordani said. He said as the number of coronavirus patients dropped, he and other physician volunteers have returned to retirement.

Cordani called other physicians, nurses and health care providers the true heroes. “They put themselves out there,” he said.

Cordani has gone back to painting watercolors, including one of Fauci that he recently emailed to the infectious disease specialist. Cordani said he received a brief thank you via email.

He thinks fondly of Huntington Hospital staff and admires how they put their lives on the line to help patients.“ They were wonderful,” he said.