I look down at his face – smiling with serious eyes – from the glossy paperback book that’s been staring up at me from my kitchen table for weeks. I feel at once responsible and unworthy to tell (t)his story. Still, he looks up at me with that patient smile through those piercing eyes. I hear him insisting,
“Do this for me. There’s a reason I was in your back seat that day.”
I’ve prayed for wisdom every day of these weeks. I realize I may be letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, and so now, with lasers from his eyes charging me to move forward, I will attempt to honor him and all healthcare professionals with this story.
Who am I? I’m a lot of things; among them: a singer, actor, speaker, author, children’s acting coach and conductor of Christmas cheer through my company of Broadway holiday carolers and Christmas spirit workshops. You would think that list would keep me exhausted and pay all of my bills. It doesn’t. I’m also a very good driver. I love to drive, and talking to a wide variety of people fills me with fascination, empathy and a mushrooming will to make a positive difference in this world.
For three weeks in January of 2020, I drove my up-and-coming singer/songwriter/film composer daughter (Rozie Baker – she’s awesome – check her out!) to her new home in L.A. via a concert tour. When I drove myself back to my home in New Jersey in just three days, I decided that I really should be filling in my slow hours with ride share driving. I applied to Lyft and began taking passengers the last week of February.
My first two weeks of Lyft driving were night and day from the next three. I knew, before I transported my first passenger, that there was this new virus that was beginning to make waves in the United States. I bought a couple of cans and tubs of disinfectant spray and wipes and hung a sign from the back of my front passenger seat:
“It’s my pleasure to give you a Lyft today! For your safety and comfort, I disinfect the car between each ride and wipe the handles and seat belts. If you’d like to give me a lift, please consider sharing with me about your favorite holiday song, thoughts on coronavirus or whatever.”
I started doing a weekly radio segment called “Midweek Lift with Renae,” (Vantage Point, 830weeu.com) where I would talk about the most uplifting passengers I drove that week.
During the last week of February and the first week of March, I drove students to universities, friends to parties, responsible drinkers home from bars, travelers and commuters to and from airports and train stations, and all sorts of people to and from all sorts of jobs. The next three weeks, my passengers seemed only to be what was deemed “essential workers”, and the hours I would drive them were much earlier in the morning.
My first passenger on Thursday, March 26, was a manager of a fast food restaurant in an area I’d never driven before. She seemed to not be a morning person. I took the hint and let her have some quiet before she opened the store. After she got out of the car, I sat in the parking lot and said my usual prayer thanking God, in advance, for sending me the passenger God wanted me to meet. Then the ping came across my Lyft app on my phone. I was to pick someone up from the hospital right across the street. It took me thirty seconds to arrive. It was about 6:00am. It was dark except for the bright light at the door where a security guard stood. I got out of the car, wiped the backseat passenger door handles and seat belts, and left the door open, so the passenger wouldn’t have to touch the outside handle. The security guard said,
“You’re going to New York City, right?”
With Lyft, you don’t know where you’re taking the passenger until they get in the car and you let the app know you’re ready to proceed, so I said,
“I don’t know!”
He said, “It’ll probably take him another five minutes.”
He looked at a large tent about twenty-five feet from my car and said, “Roll up your windows, and I’m gonna shut this door.”
Soon, my passenger came out. It was an ER doctor. He was apologetic. “I’m sorry to keep you waiting. I’ve never had a Lyft driver arrive so quickly!”
I assured him it was no problem, and then I thanked him for his service and sacrifice on the front lines of this pandemic. I asked him how he was doing and how all of this had been for him and his colleagues.
He told me that he’d just finished his third 12-hour night shift in a row.
I said, “Oh! I should just let you sleep then!”
He looked at my sign and said, “No no, that’s OK!”
I swiped the app and learned that we would be in the car together for thirty-five minutes, as I drove him to New York City. We pulled out of the parking lot and started on our way.
He began by telling me that it (coronavirus) had been really hard for him and all of the staff. He told me he’d just lost his first patient to Covid-19 the day prior and that it had been really hard on him. He said that, usually in the ER, he doesn’t get a chance to know the patients or form any bonds with them. Usually, he would perform emergency, life-saving procedures on them, and they would immediately be whisked away to another floor for further care. But with this pandemic, the hospital was full-to-bursting with patients on gurneys in hallways and every last space in the ER, so he’d had the unusual opportunity to form a bond with this woman.
Then he explained me how this virus was affecting peoples’ lungs. What he told me may very well have saved my life only a few days later. He told me that the mucus that would make its way into the lungs was thicker, heavier and stickier than most. It became like a cement in the lungs and the patients were unable to expel or cough it out. It clogged the millions of alveoli “holes” in the lungs, impeding the transfer of gas from oxygen to carbon dioxide and preventing sufficient oxygen from getting to the blood.
He told me about the oxygen devices they could, typically, use to help a patient in respiratory distress. Two which are often used were off the table for Covid-19, as they send out germs from the patient into the air “like crazy.” But there are two more options to use depending on the pulse-ox level, (the amount of oxygen in the blood.) If the level gets too low, they need to intubate the patient. That’s where the doctor inserts the tube down the throat to get the oxygen into the patient’s lungs.
At some point in this discussion, we introduced ourselves. I don’t know if he gave me his full name, but what stuck was “Dr. Frank.” Dr. Frank told me that when a doctor is intubating a patient with Covid-19 he or she is most at risk of getting the virus, because they have to put themselves in a position where their face is about 6 inches in front of the patient’s face. Because of this, they have to wear what he called “that astronaut-looking suit” with a visor over the eyes. Something I didn’t know about those hazmat suits, about which Dr. Frank enlightened me, is that they have fans on the inside to keep the wearer from overheating.
“But,” he said, with sad understanding, “this hospital can’t afford the batteries for those fans, which causes the visor to steam up.”
“So, was your visor steamed up as you intubated this patient?”
“Yes! The whole time!”
“By the time they need to be intubated, their chances of survival go way down. She was gone within four minutes. It was horrible. In my 36 years of being an ER doctor, I’ve never seen anyone die with that look of terror on their face; like an actual evil entity was coming for her or something. I looked it up on a facebook group of doctors dealing with Covid-19, and this seems to be a thing.”
“My gosh! I’m so sorry!” I said, shaken.
“Yeah, thank you, it’s really disturbing. I’ll never forget that look on her face.”
The chill of that image ignited a barrage of questions from me,
“So how are all of you dealing with this? What’s it like for you? How’s morale among the staff? Do you have enough PPE?
“No, we don’t!” he blurted out.
“Normally, in the ER, we only have to use PPE three to four times a week. NOW, we have to wear it our entire time working in the hospital, 12 hours a day, every day which – first of all – is impossible, and second, it’s exhausting and wears you down. And on top of that, because we don’t have enough, we are wearing the same masks all day for multiple days in a row, and we’re trying to disinfect them on our own. Last week, I wore the same mask for four days in a row. It’s really hard on the staff.”
“Wow…” I shook my head.
“It’s worse for the nurses.” He added. “The doctors get new masks before they do, and they’re beginning to get fevers and be sent home.”
“Oh no – Are there replacements for them?”
“No! There aren’t. It’s getting so bad that the administrators are telling the doctors that if we get sick, we still have to come in!”
“Whoa…That’s shocking….Have any gotten sick yet?”
“Not that I know of.”
As the Lyft app ticked away the minutes until we would arrive at Dr. Frank’s home, I felt sure that my passenger prayer had been answered, and that I was supposed to meet this very special man who was so energetically sharing with me after giving so much of himself in this Herculean situation for so many hours and days. I told him how nice it was to talk with him and how grateful I was that he was sharing his experience with me. I told him about the radio segment, and I asked him what he’d like people to know.
He said, “Well you can talk about ALL of it! But I guess I’d really like people to know – well – I’m really angry at Donald Trump for the Easter thing; his messaging telling people that he wants the church seats filled on Easter Sunday! It’s demoralizing. It’s got us all scared! I mean, if I’m going to risk my life and the life of my family, then the least he could do is come to professionals like us who are actually dealing with this to get answers before carelessly making a comment like that. People will DIE if they believe him!”
“You asked about the staff,” he continued. “It really brings down the morale of the doctors, nurses and everybody working in the hospitals to have so many people talking and acting so recklessly about this virus.”
I could see he really cared about the people with whom he worked as they all performed the unfathomable work of saving lives – or trying – in this unprecedented arena.
We’ve all heard the news about the importance of “flattening the curve” and “sheltering in place” long enough to help keep the numbers of patients in the hospitals manageable. I, myself, had concerns about people who felt impervious to this virus or who thought that – if they contracted it – it was their problem and they could handle it. These are the people who were still gathering in groups, not wearing masks and – quite frankly – had no idea if they were carrying this highly contagious virus and bringing it home to their families or to their coworkers.
Is it even possible to “peaceably assemble” if we don’t know if we or the others are armed and dangerous at that assembly? These gatherings minimize the sacrifice of staffs at hospitals.
I was now seeing the face of those hospitals in my rearview mirror. I heard the anxious panic, exasperation, incredulity and desperation in the imploring voice of those hospitals. Having Dr. Frank say these things to me at close range gave me a shot of perspective. It lit in me a fire of protective agency for him and all healthcare professionals.
Before we reached our destination, the kind doctor told me that he’d written a book, a few years earlier, based on his experience of having compassion fatigue, otherwise known as “burnout.” The title of the book is Back from Burnout, Seven Steps to Healing from Compassion Fatigue and Rediscovering (Y)our Heart of Care. (I remembered “Back from Burnout.”) He told me about diseases and illnesses he’d overcome, and some of the discoveries he’d made because of his experiences, including the surprising people who showed up and tended to him during those times. He told me that he’d just been married a few months earlier, and how he’d never been happier in his life. In spite of the seriousness of our conversation, it was easy to see that he had an inner light, a joy and a drive to connect with people and make a difference in their lives.
As we crossed over the Hudson River, a beautiful morning light was overtaking the darkness and bouncing off the suspension cables of the George Washington Bridge. The conversation continued past the budding trees that lined the neighborhood streets of Manhattan. We pulled up to the curb in front of his home. I put the car in park, tapped the app on my phone and turned to look directly at him.
“It has been a real pleasure and privilege talking with you.” I said. “Thank you for sharing so much with me, and again – thank you for all you do.”
One leg out the door, he did a double-take and looked me directly in the eye. “This was nice. Thank you! Good luck on the radio!”
I turned off my Lyft app and opened my phone’s memo feature. I wanted to lock in every image and expression he’d relayed to me. I began speaking into the phone. A headache started making its way across my head, but in my excitement about my conversation with Dr. Frank, I barely noticed it. I also dismissed a slight lower backache.
On the way home, remembering what he’d said about the cement-like mucus that Covid-19 creates, I went to a pharmacy and picked up some bottles of Mucinex; one of the tools in my singer’s tool box. I knew I already had a stock of another of those tools – Alkalol – a mucus solvent and nasal rinse. I wanted to make sure that, were I to get infected, I would have mucus-busting supplies on hand. I looked for acetaminophen, but the shelves in my local New Jersey stores were emptied of it, in light of the cautions around ibuprofen. When I got home, I ordered his book right away.
The next day, I felt a dry cough and self-quarantined right away. Next came the fever which fluctuated between 99.1 and 101.4 for about four days. There were also a couple of days when the fever was down to 96, which I didn’t realize is also considered a fever. Then came the body aches. The lower back ache that kept me awake at night before the acetaminophen arrived was stunning in its relentless clawing! The fatigue set in. I don’t think I’d slept that many hours a day since I was a baby! Some days, I slept twenty out of twenty-four hours! Though I didn’t have a sore throat or difficulty breathing (yet,) I had a pretty good idea that I had been infected with the virus and that I now had Covid-19. When I put Vick’s Vapor Rub under my nostrils and couldn’t smell it, I called my doctor and we had a telappointment on March 31st.
I went that very day to a drive through testing center. The people working at these testing centers have my heart! I scared one of the military guards, guiding traffic, when I opened my passenger seat window too soon. It showed me how very like a minefield we are right now. Like on a battlefield, those on the frontlines are afraid, but they serve us anyway. It broke my heart that I’d scared him. Each station along the way showed me kind and concerned healthcare workers, holding up signs and miming to me as I displayed my prescription and drivers license through the windshield. Finally, at the last station, workers in full hazmat suits instructed me to lower my side window a few inches for the test. After the swab was pulled back out and my window raised, they held up a sign that said, “Feel better!” The looks on their faces reminded me of a mother’s reassurance to a sick child. I mimed my heartfelt thanks to them and went back home for several more days of pain, fatigue, coughing, fever and – interestingly – hours of feeling so well, that it was embarrassing. During those hours, I felt like a fraud having so many friends and family concerned about me, sending care packages, bringing groceries to my door step, when there I was, feeling well! But I would learn that the path to recovery from Covid-19 is nonlinear! Coronavirus sufferers and survivors have given it the moniker “Corona Coaster,” and I can attest to the ups, downs and sudden twists and turns of it!
Thanks to Dr. Frank, I gargled with the mucus solvent and took the Mucinex. I also practiced breathing and rib cage strengthening exercises throughout each day, and mucus-busting vocal exercises with warm shower water pounding on my back. I was so grateful to the doctor for educating me about what Covid-19 mucus does to the lungs! Because of his tutelage, I was zealously doing what I could to diminish the effects of the mucus.
During my illness, I read a friend’s Facebook post. He is an EMT in New Jersey, and wrote about how he and his coworkers were seeing a new phenomenon with Covid-19 where their patients would be talking to them one moment, and dropping dead the next. I thought about the woman Dr. Frank lost to the virus. I had thought of her many times and wondered what that look of terror on her face as she died was all about. One morning I woke up feeling about as lousy as I had the previous morning. I walked about 20 steps to the bathroom when I stopped in my tracks. I had filled my lungs up with an inhalation of air, but I wasn’t getting what I needed from that breath. I’d never felt that before, and it was terrifying! I had taken in a full breath of air, but the oxygen wasn’t getting to where my body needed it to go! It was counter-intuitive to exhale that air when I hadn’t yet gotten from it what I needed. It felt like there was only one direction to go; one option – to keep taking in more air until I got some satisfaction from the breath – but my lungs were expanded as far as I could push them! I couldn’t even call out to God! (That’s something I have never anticipated!) I stood there paralyzed with an incredulous panic for a moment! I thought I was going to drop to the floor in a couple of seconds! I knew I had to make myself do that hardest of things – exhale – and try for another breath before I passed out. I believe my rib cage and breathing exercises gave me the strength to be able to push that useless breath out of my lungs and take another hasty breath in. I got something out of that breath! I expelled that one out quickly and took in another. I was panting and it was working!
“Thank God!” I said out loud, after my breathing was back on track.
“And thank you, Dr. Frank!” Then it occurred to me that that very well may have been what his patient’s look of terror was all about. I’m relieved to think it wasn’t demons coming after these patients.
Two and a half weeks later, Easter Sunday, was the first day I felt well enough to put on a mask and take a walk out to my mail box. There was the cardboard package I just knew was Dr. Frank’s book. I brought it inside and ripped open the package. There was his face, bright and shining, just as I remembered him in my backseat. And there was his last name – Gabrin. Dr. Frank Gabrin. I was filled with joy! I thought,
“You know, we had such a great talk, I’m gonna look him up on Facebook. I think he might be happy to hear from me!”
So before I even read a word inside the book, I logged onto Facebook and searched for him. I found his professional page. There were a couple of comments from friends at the top of his timeline that gave me a jolt.
“Could it be?!”
I did a Google search for him.
This time, ejecting the air from my lungs came quickly and involuntarily, like I’d been kicked in the gut. He was already gone! That very morning that I dropped him off at his home, he and his spouse developed their first symptoms. Five days later, he died of Covid-19. He was America’s first ER doctor to die of the virus. Neither of us could have known it at the time, but I was driving him home from his last hospital shift.
I couldn’t believe it. There I was on Easter Sunday – the very day he had been worried about people crowding into churches – and he hadn’t even lived the two and a half weeks to see it. I think I know how he would feel about premature relaxing of sheltering in place orders, wearing of face coverings and dense gatherings of people in pools, on beaches and elsewhere.
Sad to say, but patience is not a widely practiced virtue in America. We’re twitchy. We’re short-sighted. We lack the perspective that would tone down our sense of entitlement. It seems to be getting worse as the years go by. When I was a little girl, we had to start wearing seatbelts in automobiles. If we didn’t comply, we could get fined. I don’t recall any talk of our rights as American citizens being trampled on then. After the horrors of 9/11, we had to make huge adjustments to be allowed onto airplanes and into certain places. Most people seemed relieved to have those safety measures in place, and as a nation we have transitioned well. Annual deaths in America from car accidents and terrorism are only a fraction of the deaths we’ve already experienced from Covid-19 after only a few months, but if you state the opinion that we should all be sheltering in place as much as possible, wearing masks and standing six feet apart, even as a temporary measure, you are likely to be accused of hateful, un-American, political rhetoric.
People aren’t allowed to drink alcohol and drive a car. That’s to protect us, our passengers and the people in other cars around us. That’s the law. Most people think that’s reasonable. However, if you go out without a mask and gather closely with a bunch of people, not only might you contract this virus, but you may unknowingly spread it to family, friends, strangers and – if you or they are hospitalized – your doctors and nurses; some of whom might die.
The only reason I know that Dr. Frank Gabrin died of Covid-19 is because he told me the name the book he’d authored, and I was able to look him up. I don’t believe I contracted the virus from him nor he from me, since my obvious symptom started the next day. It’s possible that the head and lower back ache I experienced later that very day were symptoms that I didn’t recognize. It’s likely we both had it for a few days before we felt our first symptoms. Scientific studies are showing that we are more contagious in the early days of Covid-19 (ie: before we even know we are sick,) and emit the virus about 1000% more than any other SARS virus we have seen. Since I live alone and sheltered in place as much as possible whenever I wasn’t driving, it is most likely that I contracted it from one of my passengers. Most days, I drove between 12 and 17 passengers. Which of them infected me? More tormenting questions: how many of them did I infect? How many of those might’ve gotten sick and died from Covid-19? Sure, I felt like an essential worker transporting essential workers to their jobs, but this question HAUNTS me.
Dr. Frank Gabrin put his life on the front lines of this Coronavirus pandemic, and he lost it. So have others. I see yard signs, tv ads and social media posts thanking our healthcare workers for their heroism. In New York City, the residents bang their pots and pans and cheer out their windows every evening during the 7pm changing of the guards to encourage the hospital workers and cheer them on. Times Square is practically empty of people and vehicles at all hours. But on the other side of the bridges and tunnels, have we gone tone deaf to the tune of true gratitude?
If Dr. Gabrin and countless other doctors, nurses and hospital workers are risking their lives to be there for us when our very life’s breath is threatened, then shouldn’t we be doing everything we can to try to keep from getting and spreading this virus? Isn’t that the best way to say “Thank you for being our heroes?”
Dr. Frank told me about a silver lining he envisioned.
“I believe this could be a very important moment in our history,” he said, “where we finally realize that we are, indeed, all connected. There really is a brotherhood of man. What we say and do really does matter. It has always been this way, but maybe it takes a physical virus spreading like invisible wildfire for us to finally understand it. And maybe – just maybe – more of us will start taking better care of each other.”