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Year in Review: An Island professional at the COVID epicenter: Caring for the sick and dying in Queens

At the end of the year, the Reporter is looking back on some significant stories we brought to our readers in 2020. Here’s a report on a hometown hero that we published in May.

Islander John Reilly, when talking about the last six weeks, described his work as being “in it.”

As in, “I’d get to the hospital, put on my PPE [personal protective equipment] and then, right away, I was in it.”

“It” is the national epicenter of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, Queens, New York, specifically Queens Hospital Center in Jamaica, where Mr. Reilly, a physician assistant, has worked day-into-night shifts from Thursdays to Sundays. He takes a 6 a.m. boat off the Island and catches a boat around 11 p.m. for home.

During the first several weeks, walking into the hospital in the morning, the stench was an assault. “The smell of feces, urine and vomit,” he said. “And the smell of death.”

After an hour, Mr. Reilly said, “I wouldn’t smell it anymore.” But after a shift, the memory of the smell was something he couldn’t shake.

Trained in emergency room medicine as well as other medical disciplines, he works out of the Wainscott office of the Meeting House Lane Medical Practice, which is part of Stony Brook Medicine. Six weeks ago he thought he knew what busy was.

“At our urgent care facility in East Hampton, we sometimes see 70 or 80 patients a day in the summer,” he said. “But this …” he momentarily couldn’t find words to describe the non-stop, hour-after-hour drumbeat of caring for the severely ill and working with a team to save them.

He described his first day at Queens Hospital, of going into a department that “normally should have beds for 48 people having 160 to 200 people.”

Mr. Reilly’s been part of medical personnel teams there with native New Yorkers, and also volunteers from dozens of states who heard the call and came to the epicenter to help.

“We have military reserve people with us,” he said, describing a benevolent Tower of Babel. “Every accent from every region of the country, and the patients speaking 12 different languages.”

But for all that, he said, “It was calm chaos. Does than make sense? We were all in it, and all working together.”

There was no panic, no raised voices. “Total focus kept anxiety away. There were no distractions,” he said. “The only time I saw anyone in the hospital looking at their phones, it was to find medical information.”

In the beginning there was a lack of N-95 surgical masks, so he wore the same one through an entire shift. Conditions were difficult. “We couldn’t have any air conditioning because you can’t have air circulating the virus, so we worked in full equipment in the emergency room,” he said. “Sometimes it was over 80 degrees in there.”

The hospital is in a working class neighborhood — one of the city’s most densely populated — with many immigrants and people on the economic margins of American society, he said. Along with the elderly, this is the demographic, Mr. Reilly added, that has been struck the heaviest blow by the pandemic.

According to statistics published by New York University three years ago, the poverty rate in the Queens neighborhood was more than 30%, while the entire city’s poverty rate was 18%.

There were moments when the experience on the frontline of the pandemic hit especially hard, Mr. Reilly said. “During one shift I went to my locker for a minute to get a bottle of water,” he remembered, and saw activity near a doorway at the end of the room. “There were five guys, orderlies, with lots of large orange bags,” he said. “Loading the bodies into a truck.”

There were moments of heroism on every shift, but his highest admiration is for those orderlies, the lowest paid staffers in the hospital, whose duties include constant cleaning, moving beds of the sick and dying, taking care of the dead, and removing them with as much dignity as possible.

Nurses were thrust into a new role most had never, or rarely, experienced, Mr. Reilly said, of being the only people to be with a patient dying on a ward or in a hallway. No friends or family were allowed in because of the highly infectious illness, so the sick died alone, or with a nurse there to offer a human connection during the last few moments of a life.

Catching the first boat in the morning, and thinking of the day ahead — “I’m not a morning person to begin with” — has been eased by joyous news from Massachusetts. His daughter Maggie has given birth to twin girls. “The photos are amazing,” he said. “The girls are so beautiful.”

And on the midnight boat back to the Island, Mr. Reilly had time to reflect on his colleagues, the swirl of work he’d been in, and the lives lost and some saved. Another day done. “No one backed off,” he said.