For 7 New Yorkers, a pandemic year’s fight for the future

NEW YORK (AP) — It was the eve of the deadliest day of the coronavirus spike that brought New York City to a trembling standstill. They were a handful of people doing what they could in the city’s fight for survival, and their own.

A year ago, The Associated Press told the story of a day in the life of a stricken city through the eyes of New Yorkers on the front lines and in quarantine as they faced fear, tragedy, isolation and upheaval.

As the United States’ most populous city turned into its most lethal coronavirus hot spot, some of these New Yorkers saw the virus’ toll up close in an emergency room, an ambulance and a funeral home.

Others were suddenly looking from what felt like far away at the city and the lives they knew — a Broadway actor wondering when the curtain would go up again, a rabbi no longer able to hold the hands of dying people. A taxi driver and a woman running a local meals-on-wheels program who contended with the risks and challenges of jobs that were suddenly recognized as essential.

The AP recently returned to these New Yorkers to look at a full year of living through the pandemic in a city that has regrouped but not fully recovered.

Like New York itself, they’ve endured 12 months framed by grief and fortitude, trauma and new direction, economic and social loss, exhaustion and cautious reawakening — and both worry and hope about the future.

THE PARAMEDIC

Travis Kessel has begun making plans again: a 30th birthday trip to Walt Disney World, tickets for a rescheduled concert that he hopes will happen this time.

Yet the excitement that something like normal life is returning is tempered by worries about how quickly it could be taken away again. The Fire Department paramedic knows something else could always be lurking.

“For years it was: ‘What’s the next terrorist attack going to be?’ After 9/11, that became the prevailing fear of people, especially Americans, New Yorkers,” Kessel said. “And now, going through something like this — what’s the next virus around the corner? What’s the next pandemic?”

The deluge of 911 calls for medical aid has subsided since peaking in late March 2020 at more than 6,000 a day, compared to 4,000 or fewer normally, and filling Kessel’s days with a stunning volume of critically ill and dead patients. He still starts to choke up when he recalls telling a man that his wife was dead, and the tearful husband saying, “I lost my best friend.”

Now there’s less stress, though not enough less to relax. It haunts Kessel that it’s still not fully understood why the virus spiked as abruptly and severely as it did in New York City, where the daily death toll went from zero to more than 800 in just over three weeks. In all, the city counts more than 30,000 coronavirus deaths.

He lost colleagues including Idris Bey, a fellow EMS instructor who was a rescuer at the World Trade Center and died last April at 60. The FDNY hasn’t been able to gather fully to honor those lost with line-of-duty funerals.

Without diversions such as travel, Kessel said it’s felt like virtually all work for more than a year.

His break is finally coming. He and his wife, Meghan, a nurse, will celebrate his birthday at Disney World, where they got engaged.

“It seems to be we’re heading in the right direction,” Kessel said. “There’s going to be hiccups, but at this point, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Whether it’s real or not is yet to be determined.”

— By Brian Mahoney

THE TAXI DRIVER

Nicolae Hent put it bluntly when he brought his taxi in for service recently.

“I have to make a living,” Hent recalled telling the shop. “If you keep my car two weeks, I’ll go bankrupt.”

Hent grossed $73,000 through the meter last year, $30,000 less than in 2019. With so much of New York City’s workforce staying home and tourists staying away, he could drive for long stretches without finding a fare.

Hent realized by early last April that his best hope was to look for health care workers near hospitals. He has some success now in midtown Manhattan but still not downtown in the financial district.

“You can drive an hour, you may not be able to find a passenger around downtown,” Hent said.

Two years from his planned retirement, Hent, 64, has now lengthened his workday, leaving his Queens home around 6 a.m. instead of coming into Manhattan in late morning. That still won’t get him back to his pre-pandemic earnings, but he said he’s been able to make all his mortgage payments since May after not paying in March and April.

The ride he longs to take is to Boston to see his daughter and granddaughters for the first time since February 2020. Now fully vaccinated, he’s looking forward to his wife’s second shot in mid-April, so they can go.

They saw their other daughter briefly last summer. She and her boyfriend dropped by for a few minutes, but remained outside, on her parents’ 40th anniversary.

“So it was tough,” Hent said. “Not an easy year to go through in 2020. Hopefully, this one will be better, but God knows.”

— By Brian Mahoney

THE MEALS-ON-WHEELS DIRECTOR

A little before 7:30 a.m. on a recent morning, delivery workers wove around Carla Brown with insulated bags in hand, readying for another day of distributing hundreds of hot meals to homebound older adults.

Brown ducked into her office, stacked with so many cartons of disposable masks and gloves that she’s given up working inside. It’s one more reminder, she said, that what passes for normal now remains anything but.

“It’s been the longest year of my life,” said Brown, whose meals-on-wheels program was swamped last spring when New York’s lockdown stranded many of the city’s elderly.

“I think that’s been the struggle for us, is our new normal,” she said, as the Charles A. Walburg Multi-Service Organization tries to plan for what’s to come without knowing quite what that will be.

When the virus struck, the organization scrambled to feed 1,000 older adults in upper Manhattan, up from 700 to 800 usually.

Once the caseload began easing in June, the organization was well over budget. Meanwhile, the staff shrank because of virus fears, family responsibilities and enhanced unemployment checks.

College students and some church and service group members volunteered to help. But as the city revived, many returned to work and school. Recently, a bus company has provided two vans and drivers at no charge. But Brown’s organization is still short-handed.

Brown, 54, subbed in to drive delivery routes, her workdays stretching to 13 or 14 hours. She’s stepped away from deliveries this spring but still works six-day weeks, and she worries that next year could bring city budget cuts.

The virus has frozen her plans for new initiatives and kept her worried about her parents, both 78. For months, she stood outside their home during visits, before venturing inside with a mask. Both stayed healthy, but Brown hasn’t hugged them in a year.

Brown found a release when New York let gyms reopen and she resumed workouts. But she longs for pandemic pressures to ease.

“I’m busy cheerleading and trying to get my staff up and keep them up, and then I say to myself, ‘When is this thing going to be over?’”

— By Adam Geller

THE UNDERTAKER

Seething through an N95 face mask, Jesus Pujols railed last April about the indignities forced upon New York’s dead.

An overnight undertaker, Pujols hardly slept last spring. When he did, it was often in the van he used to transport the deceased. The 24-year-old works for a Brooklyn funeral home that at one point had nearly 500 people in its care, a backlog unresolved until June.

His work weeks stretched past 80 hours, but he struggled most after-hours.

“Sitting in silence, that’s when the hallucinations would come around,” he said. “It got pretty bad.”

Doctors told Pujols he was experiencing hypnagogic hallucinations — a term for imagined perceptions that occur as sleep sets in — and said they were caused by sleep deprivation and trauma.

“No sleeping, working until you’re exhausted, and seeing a lot of nasty, very deplorable things,” he said. “Really, that’s what ended up causing it.”

Therapy helped, and so did religion. Pujols now carries a notepad to combat forgetfulness and wears a watch to aid time management.

Family was an outlet, but the pandemic was there, too. When his grandfather died of COVID-19, Pujols insisted on handling the embalming himself.

“I felt like I had to,” he said.

Last April, Pujols said he wanted to quit. A year later, he’s glad he didn’t. He was able to support relatives pushed out of work by the pandemic, and he’s found purpose as one of New York’s last responders.

“I feel more proud,” he said, pausing. “And different.”

The change is apparent. A year ago, Pujols was bleary-eyed and boiling with rage. Now that he’s rested, he’s calmer, if not entirely at peace.

“I get recognition from the people that I help, but not appreciation from the public, I feel,” he said. “We get left out often in the regular news when it comes to, ‘Oh, thank you for all the essential workers,’ and all they show are, like, hospital people.”

“It breaks my heart.”

— By Jake Seiner

THE E.R. DOCTOR

Dr. Joseph Habboushe headed into a New York emergency room on a February afternoon to care for coronavirus patients, work that had become all too familiar after nearly a year on the front lines. Yet it also felt new.

It was Habboushe’s first shift in the coronavirus section of the E.R. at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, after years at another Manhattan hospital where he worked through the deadliest days last spring.

On this day, the emergency medicine specialist would see 20-plus patients, some of them critically ill. But now, Habboushe was going in vaccinated and equipped with a year’s worth of medicine’s collective knowledge about the virus.

“There was a level of fear and anxiety that I knew I had before,” said Habboushe, 44. He’s still worried, given emerging virus variants and other uncertainties, but “it’s not constantly eating at me.”

The NewYork-Presbyterian hospital system’s coronavirus patient count is down about 70% from the city’s peak last spring, but still numbers around 750 people, including 150 in intensive care: “We’re still not over this pandemic,” CEO Steven Corwin cautioned.

At the peak, Habboushe’s qualms were matched by a battlefield-like focus and the belief he could contribute to the fight. For him and many other health care workers, it was after the first surge subsided that its mental impact really sank in.

“There were a few months that were pretty hard for me,” Habboushe said. He thought about patients who’d been saved in the E.R. but died later. He sometimes felt the best efforts hadn’t mattered.

But the last year also brought Habboushe professional and personal growth.

Besides his new hospital job, he’s been busy at his other work as co-founder of MDCalc, a medical reference app that has been adding coronavirus-specific tools.

Meanwhile, he and girlfriend Samantha Smalley — a pharmacist at the hospital where he formerly worked — drew closer while living through quarantine and working on the front lines together, sometimes at the same patient’s bedside.

A lot closer: They got engaged in December.

“This year has changed my life,” Habboushe said. “To be forced to pause and to focus on being alive. and family and friends and seeing what’s important — there’s a silver lining to that.”

— By Jennifer Peltz

THE ACTOR

At moments, E. Clayton Cornelious wondered whether his 20-plus years on Broadway were over.

“There were times I was depressed and I couldn’t get out of bed for a week, thinking, ‘Am I really going to have to change careers here?’” said Cornelious, who had been performing in “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations” before the pandemic darkened the Great White Way.

But “then I would snap out of it, and I would say no,” said Cornelious, 44. “I know that theater and this entertainment industry is the soul of New York — nothing really can happen without it.”

Cornelious’ determination to stay positive has been part of his efforts to cope since New Yorkers were first told to stay home last year.

It hasn’t been easy. Tired of the isolation of his Bronx apartment, he went to stay with his mother in another state, only to run right into the coronavirus after she was exposed.

He stayed to help her get through it, then returned to New York and dealt with his own, relatively mild case of COVID-19.

In the months since, Cornelious has adapted as best he can, getting lights and other equipment to audition for TV and film spots from home, teaching a class on the business side of an entertainment career and getting his website running.

He’s looking forward to seeing Broadway reopen. The city is preparing for that to happen this fall.

“You can’t take away that live theater feeling,” Cornelious said. “I’m pretty sure that theater is going to survive and people are going to come.”

— By Deepti Hajela

THE RABBI

For Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, funerals have been among the most arduous parts of the past year.

For many months, only a handful of mourners were allowed at cemeteries; others sometimes resorted to watching funerals via Zoom. Cemeteries were so overloaded last spring that burials were allotted 10-minute slots.

“It had to be quick and not with a lot of talking,” said Kleinbaum, senior rabbi at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, considered the largest LGBTQ synagogue in the nation.

Yet grieving has been offset by creative efforts to maintain solidarity without in-person worship.

Early on, Kleinbaum started a Monday-through-Thursday online class about the Psalms. It has had nearly 100 regular participants.

“Many people in our synagogue live alone,” Kleinbaum said. “Some have written me saying the class was the foundation for them getting out of bed in the morning.”

The congregation also started offering online Hebrew lessons; more than 100 people have signed up. And every Monday, there’s a communal dinner on Zoom, providing mealtime conversation for those who live alone.

Personally, Kleinbaum found it tough to endure limited in-person contact with her family. She made one trip each to Boston and Los Angeles to see her daughters and granddaughters.

It’s been a comfort to share the challenges with her wife, Randi Weingarten, who as president of the American Federation of Teachers has wrestled with virus safety at schools.

The pandemic has reminded Kleinbaum how her congregation weathered the early years of her tenure in the 1990s, when AIDS was killing thousands of gay New Yorkers annually.

“You don’t have the magic wand to make everything better, but you can show up and help people get through the worst of it,” she said.

— By David Crary

___

Last year, The Associated Press fanned out across New York City, following residents for 24 hours as they tried to endure, and do their part to help, a city under siege by a pandemic. Read their stories here.

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