ER Doctor Who Diagnosed First Confirmed NYC COVID-19 Case Reflects 1 Year Later

Mar 11, 2021
Originally published on March 11, 2021 7:24 am

Dr. Angela Chen, an emergency medicine doctor at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, says she is pretty good at dealing with the unexpected. It's part of what drew her to emergency medicine, and her work on emergency cases trained her to navigate uncertain times.

Then, there was COVID-19.

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared that the coronavirus outbreak had reached the level of a pandemic with "alarming levels of spread and severity." The NBA postponed a game after a player tested positive and the league immediately suspended its season. President Trump announced a travel ban on Europe and actor Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson announced they both fell ill with the virus. Americans started panic shopping at grocery stores, and many people entered self isolation. Healthcare workers were thrust onto the frontlines of a crisis that so far has left more than half a million dead in the U.S.

For Dr. Chen, who was five months into her first post-residency job, the chaos of the pandemic was already mounting in New York by the time the WHO made its declaration. Chen had diagnosed the city's first confirmed COVID-19 case 10 days before March 11. By then, frontline health workers like Chen were scrambling to secure PPE and create dedicated COVID wards to try to constrain the spread.

Chen says New York's deadly coronavirus wave last spring feels like a haze of fear and mental exhaustion when she tried to keep staff and patients safe. On March 11th, so much was still unknown.

"There was this real fear that if I don't do this correctly, if I don't put on this PPE correctly, if there's a break in the gown and the glove, if a small particle of virus lands on me, who knows what could happen," she says.

Dr. Chen visits with her son, who stayed with her parents in New Jersey while she worked in the ER in New York.
Dr. Angela Chen

Chen was concerned about bringing the virus home to her one-year-old son, so she decided to send him to her parents' house in New Jersey. He stayed with his grandparents for four months.

"Four months in a one-year-old's life is almost half of the time he's been alive," she says. "We weren't able to be around for his first steps, we missed the first time he talked, and it's something that, sadly, we'll never be able to get back."

Chen says some of her strongest memories from March are tied to the sounds of ventilator alarms beeping, as intubated patients fought to survive. "The amount of tragedy and death that we saw — nothing in my training prepared me for it." This year, though, she's trying to hold on to the quiet moments of humanity she witnessed in the hospital.

She still thinks back to one patient who was near death in the ICU. "We recognized that she probably wouldn't survive," Chen says. She decided to contact the patient's relatives, but learned that the woman had been estranged from her family living abroad. With time running out, Chen tracked them down.

"We set up a FaceTime [call], and they brought their phone to her favorite childhood beach," Chen says. "They were able to say goodbye to her. They were able to kind of recount the memories from when they were together as children. And she took her last breaths to the waves crashing onto the sand."

"Those moments of humanity are the ones I have the most clarity on, in this phase of my life that I've almost tried to repress," she says.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Tonight, President Biden will address the nation to mark the unofficial one-year anniversary of the start of the pandemic - March 11, 2020. That day ended with a very different feeling than how it began. Americans were still commuting to work and school. They weren't wearing masks. Most people in the U.S. didn't really grasp just how much this virus was already spreading. People were still packing into basketball arenas like the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City one year ago to watch the Oklahoma City Thunder play the Utah Jazz.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Nice crowd here tonight, folks. Glad you joined us as well.

DETROW: Moments before tipoff, everyone on the court - the players, the coaches, the refs - everyone looked confused.

SARAH TODD: It was seconds, like maybe 10 seconds before the game was going to tip off, and everything just stalled.

DETROW: Sarah Todd covers the Jazz for the Deseret News. She was in the press box that night, trying to figure out what was going on.

TODD: The players are being taken off the court, going back to the locker room. It's - there was so much confusion.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: The fans here in the arena don't know what's going on. We don't know what's going on.

TODD: There were moments where nothing was happening on the court. And then all of a sudden, people will be shooting off T-shirt cannons, and the mascot's dancing. And then when the PA announcer comes over and he says...

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: And fans, due to unforeseen circumstances, the game tonight has been postponed.

TODD: ...The game has been postponed.

DETROW: That night, Todd reported that a player on the Utah Jazz named Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: You are all safe.

DETROW: You wrote that night, nobody feels safe when you hear somebody say you're safe.

TODD: Yeah, a hundred percent.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: Good night, fans.

DETROW: In fact, the NBA immediately suspended its entire season. Nothing like that had ever happened before. On March 11, 2020, a new reality was quickly setting in. People we knew were getting sick.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks and his wife, actress Rita Wilson, have tested positive for the coronavirus.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: His wife, also 63, had chills and a slight fever.

DETROW: And earlier that day in Geneva, international health officials elevated the crisis.

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TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: Good afternoon, everybody.

DETROW: That same day, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization, made it official.

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TEDROS: COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic. We have rang the alarm bell loud and clear.

DETROW: Today marks one year since the pandemic was declared.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: The coronavirus outbreak is now officially a pandemic.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: More than a thousand cases are now confirmed in the United States, and more than 30 people have died.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: The governors of Michigan and Massachusetts have declared states of emergency.

MURIEL BOWSER: I am declaring a state of emergency in Washington, D.C.

ANTHONY FAUCI: We will see more cases, and things will get worse than they are right now.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: My fellow Americans...

DETROW: That same day, a few hours after the NBA game, President Donald Trump, who repeatedly downplayed the seriousness of the virus, introduced a controversial travel ban.

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TRUMP: To keep new cases from entering our shores, we will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: President Trump suspended all travel from Europe for the next 30 days.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley is at one of Europe's busiest airline hubs, Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, and she joins us now. Hi.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Bonjour, ladies.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Bonjour. What is happening at the airport this morning? Is there confusion?

BEARDSLEY: Well...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is it busy?

BEARDSLEY: The Americans are here to fly home. And I spoke to 20-year-old Emma Shaw (ph) from Ithaca, N.Y. Here's what she told me.

EMMA SHAW: You're, like, living by the hour, by the minute. We'd get email updates. And I think the airport's the worst place you could be right now (laughter).

DETROW: When Americans realized just how bad things were, they kind of panicked. Scarce protective equipment was snapped up. Empty grocery shelves became an early symbol of the pandemic. And for a lot of people, thinking about March 11 and what came next brings back memories.

RUBI SANCHEZ: Yeah, it was crazy at the beginning. We had to prepare ourselves. When it started in March, there would be lines outside.

DETROW: This is Rubi Sanchez. She's a grocery store clerk in Los Angeles and a member of the California labor union UFCW 770.

SANCHEZ: We didn't have no pasta. We didn't have rice. We didn't have beans. We didn't have toilet paper. We never had fights, but people did take other people's stuff. We would have customers tell us, you know, I put my toilet paper in the basket, and this person just took it out of my basket and left. And that was very stressful. I try to maintain my distance with customers, but yet they don't respect that. It's like they - if they have something to say, they want to get in your face.

DETROW: Sanchez says customers would blame employees if items weren't in stock, but employees couldn't find those goods either.

SANCHEZ: Yes, everything was empty. And it lasted like that for, like, three months. And then people started getting sick. One of my co-workers got sick, and then I started to feel body aches. I couldn't smell, chills.

DETROW: And in an all-too-familiar story in this pandemic, Sanchez, an essential worker, tested positive for COVID-19.

SANCHEZ: I got my father-in-law sick, and I got my husband sick.

DETROW: All while she cared for her three kids. She says she missed two weeks' pay while she recovered at home. Her family's OK now. But across the U.S., Latino and Black communities have been hit especially hard in this pandemic. In LA County, Latinos make up nearly 50% of cases.

SANCHEZ: It's very stressful working in a grocery store with this pandemic because you feel pressure. Sometimes, you know, you come home, and you start crying. It was very stressful, and it's still stressful at this moment. I would even have, like, panic attacks. There was moments where I couldn't even breathe because I felt like I was going to get sick and I was going to get my family sick again.

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ANGELA CHEN: The amount of tragedy and death that we saw - nothing in my training really prepared me for it.

DETROW: This is Angela Chen, another front-line worker on the other side of the country. She's an emergency medicine doctor at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. She diagnosed the city's very first confirmed COVID-19 case more than a week before the outbreak was called a pandemic. By March 11, Chen and her colleagues were already overwhelmed.

CHEN: That particular day doesn't really stand out in my mind because all of March has really become this haze of just dealing with this new disease that we didn't really know that much about.

DETROW: What were you hearing? What were you seeing in the hospital? What do you think about a year later, looking back on that March, April, May period?

CHEN: So for me, really just the sound of a ventilator alarm beeping kind of really brings me back to that space. A lot of these patients, as their lungs grew more fibrotic and unable to expand with the breathing machines, you would hear these machines kind of go off, this constant beep, beep, beep of just - they're trying to push air in, but it's not working. It's one of my strongest memories from last March.

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DETROW: Like so many other frontline workers that spring, Chen was worried about the risk of bringing the virus home. So she sent her son, just a year old, to live with her parents in New Jersey. They were apart for four months while she worked in the hospital.

CHEN: You know, four months in a 1-year-old's life is almost half of the time he's been alive. And so we weren't able to be around for his first steps. We missed the first time he talked. And it's just something that, sadly, we'll never be able to get back.

DETROW: Have you had any conversations yet or spent time thinking about the way that you'll describe this period to him when he's older?

CHEN: A little bit. It's interesting. We had set up a Gmail account for him when he was first born because (laughter) we wanted him to have an email without a series of numbers after it.

DETROW: (Laughter).

CHEN: And so kind of since he was born, we'll occasionally send him emails so he can read them when he's old enough to. And I had actually gone back and read a couple of emails from when - during that time. And it's just describing, you know, the immense tragedy and I think kind of hoping that he understands that his parents just were doing the best they could with our understanding of the world during this incredibly tumultuous time.

DETROW: Yeah. As you reflect back on the past year, I'm wondering, is there any patient or moment with a patient that sticks in your mind?

CHEN: One in particular has really stayed with me. We had a patient who was very, very ill. We kind of recognized that she probably wouldn't survive it. And she had been estranged from her family for many, many years. They lived in another country. They - there was some kind of fallout. But eventually, we were able to connect with her family, and we set up a FaceTime, and they brought their phones to her favorite childhood beach. And they were able to say goodbye to her. They were able to kind of recount the memories from when they were together. And she kind of took her last breaths to the waves crashing onto the sand for, I think, what was really peaceful a place where she was content. And that really - that memory has stuck with me for - so vividly for the entire year. And those moments, I think, of humanity are the ones that I have the most clarity on in this otherwise - phase of my life I think I've almost tried to repress.

DETROW: Angela Chen is an emergency medicine doctor at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. On March 11, 2020, NPR reported that over 30 people died of COVID-19 in the United States. Today, the death toll now exceeds a half million.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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