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COVID-19 wake-up: They faced the virus and found strength in survival

Some of Long Island's first coronavirus patients —

Some of Long Island's first coronavirus patients — including Ricardo Ramirez, of Rockville Centre, and Miguel Chamaidan, of Uninodale, who was Long Island's first coronavirus patient — spoke about their experiences contracting the virus and what it is like to be a COVID-19 survivor. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca; Debbie Egan-Chin

Miguel Chamaidan of Uniondale didn't understand why his hospitalization was making the news.

Ricardo Ramirez was fighting nightmares while asleep in intensive care units at two Long Island hospitals.

All the while, Josh Wortman had left Queens and sought refuge in Westhampton as the pandemic took hold in New York City. He was already infected, and ended up in a Suffolk County hospital.

The three were among the thousands who ended up in Long Island emergency rooms as COVID-19 spread across the region in 2020. Long Island on Friday will hit the one-year anniversary of when its first positive coronavirus case was announced. There have been more than 311,000 cases diagnosed since on the Island, and at the peak on April 10, about 4,100 were hospitalized. More than 6,000 Nassau and Suffolk residents have died.

At the peak of the crisis in the spring, patients crammed every corner of area hospitals, and medical professionals worked 60- to 70-hour weeks to help care for them. One of them, Sandra Lindsay, would make international news nine months later, as possibly the first person vaccinated in the United States.

Newsday offers a glimpse of what life was like as the virus spread on the Island.

'I kept wondering, what's the big deal?'

It was an eye-opening moment: the hospitalization of Long Island's first known COVID-19 patient, at NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island in Mineola, on March 5, 2020.

Inside the Mineola hospital, Miguel Chamaidan was oblivious to the fact his sickness had caused such a stir. In fact, Chamaidan said he didn’t even know what COVID-19 was.

He also did not understand the potential severity of the disease.

Miguel Chamaidan, of Uniondale, was the first Long

 

"Looking back at it a year later, I see that I am one of the lucky ones."

 

- Miguel Chamaidan, of Uniondale, was Long Island's first known COVID-19 patient.

"At the time, I had no idea," Chamaidan said. "Looking back at it a year later, I see that I am one of the lucky ones."

He was the first of thousands of COVID-19 patients at regional hospitals, which led to news conferences and TV camera crews camped out on his street.

"I kept wondering, what’s the big deal and why are people so interested in me?" he said. "I figured I had a bad flu or maybe I needed some antibiotics."

The Uniondale man, who is married with two kids, works in the physical therapy department at Mercy Medical Center in Rockville Centre. He also runs a private car service that takes Long Islanders to and from airports.

To date, he does not have an inkling of how he came to be the Island's first patient.

"I don’t know how I contracted it," Chamaidan said. "I guess it could have been anywhere. I’m not sure."

Today, Chamaidan has largely recovered from the virus, although he said it’s taken some time. He said he sometimes still feels more out of breath faster than he used to.

"Overall, I’m much better," he said. "I feel bad for the people who didn’t get through it."

'The black shadow was coming'

Ricardo Ramirez is still haunted by the dreams he had while in intensive care at two Long Island hospitals. The Rockville Centre father of two was admitted to the ICU at St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson in March. After about six weeks, as he continued to decline, he was transferred to St. Francis Hospital in Flower Hill, in what Catholic Health called "a last-ditch effort to save him."

Ramirez doesn’t remember much about the two months or so he was hospitalized.

"After the first few days, my breathing got worse and worse, and I closed my eyes," he said. "I woke up in an ICU."

What Ramirez remembers best, however, were the dreams he’d have while he was asleep. At least twice, he said, a black shadow was moving toward him.

Ricardo Ramirez, an employee at St. Charles Hospital

 

"I started talking to God, asking him to let me wake up."

 

- Ricardo Ramirez, of Rockville Centre. His case of COVID-19 was so bad he had to be transferred from one hospital's ICU to St. Francis Hospital in Flower Hill in “a last-ditch effort to save him.”

"At St. Francis, I remember the black shadow was coming and I thought about how I didn’t want to go because of my family, my 5-year-old daughter who I want to see grow up," Ramirez said. "I started talking to God, asking him to let me wake up."

In other dreams, he saw people talking about him as if he were already dead. He choked up as he talked about the dreams.

"I’m so thankful that I am here," he said, adding that he doesn’t have health conditions that could aggravate COVID-19's severity and doesn’t know why the virus made him so sick. He said his wife and kids never contracted the virus.

Ramirez, a biomedical engineering tech at St. Charles, didn’t make it back to work until August. Today, "I feel 99%. I sometimes am out of breath when I walk upstairs. I can’t walk around at Hempstead Lake State Park as much. But I’m doing well."

'I'm grateful that I'm here'

As COVID-19 started to spread throughout the city, Wortman and his family joined others in migrating to Long Island’s East End. Wortman, his wife and son left Queens and went to stay in Westhampton on March 14, but by then, he wasn’t feeling great. Two days later, he developed a cough. Less than a week after that, he called for an ambulance and was taken to Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead.

"I was already sick when we came east, but I didn’t realize it," Wortman said.

He ended up hospitalized for 11 days, connected to a ventilator for part of his stay.

Photo of Josh Wortman, and his son, A.J.,

 

"I remember fighting it, because, well, there was a tube down my throat. A nurse came over and said I should relax or I was going to die."

 

- Josh Wortman landed in the hospital with COVID-19 shortly after moving from Queens to Westhampton.

"I remember fighting it, because, well, there was a tube down my throat," Wortman said. "A nurse came over and said I should relax or I was going to die. I said, sure, noted."

By early April, Wortman had recovered, but the family has remained in Westhampton, where he works remotely and his son attends school remotely. Wortman still doesn’t go to stores all that often.

"In the summer, I went bike riding and swimming, and I’ll take walks," he said. "The nature preserve in Quogue is great. But I’m not going to too many stores or restaurants."

He remains grateful for the care he received while hospitalized.

"I’m grateful that I’m here," Wortman said. "It’s almost weird to not have dinner together. It’s all part of the ritual now, which is great. That’s a positive."

'COVID is very, very real'

Sandra Lindsay plans to use her newfound fame to spread the gospel about getting vaccinated.

The Port Washington resident, a nurse who is director of critical care at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, said she was stunned by the attention that came with being the first person to be vaccinated in the United States. The spotlight included appearances on national television shows and having her photo run in newspapers across the world.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by SHANNON STAPLETON/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (11678679i).Nurse Sandra

 

"It’s hurtful to hear when anyone questions how real this virus is."

 

- Sandra Lindsay, a Port Washington resident, nurse and director of critical care at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, was the first person to be vaccinated in the United States.

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"Now that I have the platform, I’ll make sure to keep telling people to get vaccinated and to understand that COVID is very, very real," Lindsay said. "It’s hurtful to hear when anyone questions how real this virus is. I’m here to tell you that I’ve seen what COVID can do. The vaccine beats getting COVID."

Lindsay said hospital leaders knew there would be COVID-19 patients once the pandemic took hold in New York. Still, "Nothing could prepare us for what we saw. Patients were so sick, we tripled ICU volume. You could see fear, sadness and exhaustion behind every nurse’s eye shield. There were so many emotions."

She said despite the volume, the patients haven’t left her mind.

Lindsay also remembers the rare days she had off, in between 16-hour work days.

"Maybe I’d go for a run, go to the town dock or catch a sunset," she said. "In reality, even when we weren’t physically in, we were working."

'A great showing of humanity'

NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island in Mineola hit its COVID-19 peak on April 9, when more than 450 patients were hospitalized by the virus. The packed facility, however, was not the most unnerving aspect of the COVID-19 peak.

"I walked the floors on the day we had our first patient, and the staff was ready, they believed that we would handle this," Dr. Joseph Greco, chief of hospital operations, said. "By April 9, the staff was tired, but we had travelers brought in to help, so everything kept running."

Greco said the most jolting piece of the pandemic was the quiet streets of Mineola, which he noticed whenever he walked the hospital’s grounds to check on equipment and ambulance bays.

Dr. JosephGreco, the Chief Medical Officer at NYU

 

"We had control of the hospital ... outside, it was very eerie."

 

- Dr. Joseph Greco, who works at NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island.

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"The hospital? Hey, we had it covered. That’s what we do for a living, and we had control of the hospital," Greco said. "Outside, it was very eerie. The train stations and the restaurants were so quiet. There were no people around. You don’t plan to see that."

Greco also remembers how health care workers were treated during the height of the pandemic.

"We could do no wrong, and food kept coming in, because people wanted to help," he said. "It was an amazing time. It was a great showing of humanity, and something none of us will ever forget."

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