One month ago, Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital in Oceanside was under siege from COVID-19. With the number of cases declining since then, health care workers are trying to return to what now passes for relative normalcy. Although the virus' peak has passed, the war against it is far from over. These are the medical professionals and the patients who have fought the good fight.
A medical professional wearing full PPE waits outside the hospital to test prospective patients for COVID-19 using nose swabs as they drive up to the hospital on May 18. The new procedure: anyone scheduled to arrive at the hospital is required to have a COVID-19 test within three days of their appointment.
COVID still on the mind
While Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital slowly pivots to normal operation, the threat of COVID-19 is ever present for medical staff and patients. Some areas of the hospital are focused primarily on COVID patient care.
There had been too many COVID-19 positive patients to keep all of them isolated. Now, with more manageable numbers, the hospital is able to treat infectious patients in closed rooms. Dr. Frank Coletta, chief of critical care, peers through a window at a COVID-19 positive patient in a medically induced coma on May 19. "It doesn't look anything like a month ago. You have time now," Coletta says.
With a gloved hand, chief physician assistant Courtney Ciesla, who is eight months pregnant, tends to a patient in the emergency department who awaits results of his COVID-19 test.
Nurse Antoinnette McPherson adjusts an electrode on a patient who is on a ventilator because of the ravages of a COVID-19 infection. The patient has now tested negative, but the damage to his body is done. He remains in a medically induced coma and is taking myriad medications.
A large refrigerated container that has served as a morgue to handle the overflow of bodies is the last of three in use more than a month after the peak of COVID-19 deaths at Mount Sinai South Nassau.
A sense of normalcy
Staff in the hospital that saw the worst of the COVID crisis, like those working in the emergency department, are nervous about another influx of patients, but grateful to be returning to regular routines.
Dr. Joshua Kugler, chair of emergency medicine, at the now-empty ambulance drop-off, which a month ago had been packed so consistently there had been lines of ambulances filling the parking lot. Kugler, right, and attending physician Dr. Musa Kahn, discuss a patient's arm mobility. When asked about the relative quiet in the ER, Kugler says "We don't use the 'Q' word."
Dr. Eugene Perepada, who contracted the coronavirus and recovered from being sick and likely gave the virus to his wife and infant, prepares to treat a patient in the trauma center. The patient, a young male, had stabbed himself in the leg with gardening shears. Despite the deep wound, the man’s wife told doctors she was reluctant for him to go to the hospital because of COVID-19 fears.
No longer a waiting game
Many patients who needed urgent procedures had to wait until the hospital had the manpower and space to handle such medical needs. In some cases, the wait was over a month.
Helen Montano, a nurse at the hospital for over 40 years, had a heart attack while on the job at Mount Sinai South Nassau during the pandemic. She's decided to retire because of her newly discovered heart condition and the dangers of COVID-19 to individuals with preexisting conditions. Montano is recovering from a cardiac stent procedure on May 18.
This operation would have happened weeks ago if not for the COVID-19 surge. Roderick Middleton, 26, of Jamaica, is prepared for surgery to remove an undiagnosed lump in his neck in operating room 14. Dr. Rajiv Datta, chair of surgery, and his team removed a ping-pong ball sized lump.
A double exposure of operating room 14. Dr. Rajiv Datta, chair of surgery, as he operates on Middleton, hoping the lump on his patient's neck is not cancerous. By the end of the surgery, the team should have preliminary results. "If you just go back four weeks ago, we didn't even have the capacity" for most surgeries, Datta says.
The undiagnosed lump removed from Middleton awaits transport to "frozen," a lab where tissue is rapidly frozen, and cross-sectioned, to determine if further procedures are necessary. A little over 20 minutes after surgery, the results from “frozen” came back with a quick analysis — the lump is most likely just a large, noncancerous cyst.
A long road to a COVID-19 recovery
Patients who face drastic complications due to COVID-19, but survived the ordeal, now face a long road to recovery as the body’s reaction to the disease and the treatments for the symptoms often leave them with weakened lungs and other issues.
Dr. Frank Coletta, chief of critical care, recalled how different the hospital looked a month ago.
Retired NYPD officer Anthony Greco of Wantagh spent 61 days in the hospital battling COVID-19 and was elated to hear of his scheduled release. Surprised by his severe reaction to the virus, Greco said he had no preexisting conditions. "Last thing I remember was getting out of the car here. When we pulled in here. And that's it. After that, the month of April was gone," Greco says.
Debbie Rifenbury was on a ventilator and put in a medically induced coma because of the virus. Now, she's recovering at home in Oceanside. Although off the oxygen, she has trouble walking up stairs.
Rifenbury teared up, saying she feels like a leper and depressed that people who had been reaching out while she was in the hospital have now gone silent.
“It’s been horrible. I feel isolated. I feel people aren’t calling me as much as they were. I think they’re afraid of me.”
Her most recent moment of joy, however, was finally being able to kiss her boyfriend.
Photos by Jeffrey Basinger