How Health Care Workers Got Me Through the Pandemic

How Health Care Workers Got Me Through the Pandemic

This article is part of the I Want to Thank You series. We asked readers to tell us about who helped get them through the pandemic; this is a selection of their stories about health care workers. We’ve published an article about family and friends, and a forthcoming article will focus on inspirational figures.

Health care workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic offered more than just medical services. They gave Americans emotional support, connection and innovative solutions.

Here are the stories of a disabled woman, her father and her caretakers; a lawyer and her late mother’s physician; a woman with paraplegia and her home health aide; and a contact tracer.

In 2001, Doug Jacoby was reading to his 5-year-old daughter, Devon, in their Easton, Conn., home when the book fell on the floor. She climbed off his lap and scooped it up — an innocuous moment for most families, but for the Jacobys it was groundbreaking.

With that simple action, Devon, who has brain damage and is nonverbal, defied the doctors who had told her parents she would always be slow to respond to stimuli. (She does not have an official diagnosis but is “profoundly disabled,” her father said.)

In 2020, Ms. Jacoby was receiving assistance at the Saint Catherine Center for Special Needs in Fairfield, Conn., and had been since she turned 21. But when the pandemic shut down the center, her progress was threatened: Constant engagement is crucial to Ms. Jacoby’s development, Mr. Jacoby said.

“You fear that lacking the stimulus, lacking seeing the faces, lacking the experience, she will backslide and she will lose awareness,” Mr. Jacoby, 72, said.

Then, in April 2020, the center began to offer virtual programming over Zoom, and for two to three hours per day Ms. Jacoby was engaged and happy. (Ms. Jacoby’s parents are divorced, and she splits time living with each of them.) During music therapy sessions, she would bop her head to the beat. When the center reopened in July 2020, Mr. Jacoby knew he was sending Ms. Jacoby, now 26, back to people who genuinely cared for her.

“You don’t work with people like my daughter and do it well because it’s a job. You do it because it’s a calling,” Mr. Jacoby said. “I have too much gratitude to have the ability to express it.”

The center’s virtual sessions also included weather updates and story time. During music therapy, Mr. Jacoby, who works from home as a freelance writer, would hold a wooden spoon in Ms. Jacoby’s hand and help her bang it against a pot.

“It takes time to really get to know her, but when you do you can sense when she’s happy,” Mr. Jacoby said. “Most of the time with the music, most of the time during story time, you can tell that she was engaged.”

Most of the calls Jackie Marzan made to her mother’s doctors to inform them of her death from Covid-19 in November 2020 followed a familiar script: The doctors expressed shock, offered their condolences and said goodbye.

And then Ms. Marzan, sitting in her mother’s apartment in Queens, called Dr. Vanessa Tiongson, her mother’s neurologist at Mount Sinai Hospital. They spoke for more than two hours.

“She was asking me, ‘How do you feel?’ And then she was sharing with me how she felt,” Ms. Marzan, 51, said. “She said, ‘Oh, your mom — I’m going to miss her. She was my favorite.’”

Ms. Marzan’s mother, Aura Shirley Sarmiento, typically preferred that her doctors spoke Spanish; Dr. Tiongson did not, but earned Ms. Sarmiento’s trust nonetheless. Not long before her death, Ms. Sarmiento called Ms. Marzan crying tears of joy: Dr. Tiongson’s positive attitude had given her hope.

Dr. Tiongson’s empathy stuck with Ms. Marzan as the pandemic decimated her family: Over the next year Ms. Marzan would lose her grandmother and two aunts to Covid. In April, her father-in-law also died from the virus.

“Imagine the holidays, and you go home for the holidays and you see the kitchen full of women cooking,” Ms. Marzan said. “In my case, those are all the women cooking. They’re all gone.”

As the months wore on, she found fewer conversation partners willing to discuss Covid and her family.

“People don’t want to hear about Covid,” she said. “They say, ‘Oh, it’s not that bad anymore.’ It’s like, yeah, but Covid, it permeated our lives.”

Dr. Tiongson didn’t forget. In January, Ms. Marzan received a holiday card from Dr. Tiongson, with a photo of the doctor’s children and a note expressing her love for Ms. Sarmiento. “I thought, Who does this?” Ms. Marzan said.

Although she considers herself a minimalist, she said, she’ll always have room in her home for that card.

Annie Verchick, a woman with paraplegia and a traumatic brain injury living in rural Laporte, Colo., has worked with a revolving door of home aides. But over the past couple of years, as the pandemic compounded Ms. Verchick’s isolation, her relationship with Karen Coty, a home aide, blossomed into friendship.

In the spring of 2021, when Ms. Verchick was diagnosed with endometrial cancer, Ms. Coty accompanied Ms. Verchick to her appointments and brought her ginger ale and ice packs.

“Again and again and again, she just showed up,” Ms. Verchick, 57, said.

Ms. Coty first started working with Ms. Verchick in 2016, and soon they were playfully arguing about werewolf romance novels and dissecting “M*A*S*H,” the hit TV show that ran from 1972 to 1983.

“It was OK to have things be silly and not be tragic all the time,” Ms. Verchick said. “Karen is really disinterested in treating people as though they’re special and precious, which makes her a big win for me. You don’t get to be special. You’re a whole human being — who’s in a chair. That’s a really rare attitude.”

Ms. Coty stopped working with Ms. Verchick in November 2018 so she could attend school, before returning in the summer of 2019. When Ms. Verchick, who has neurogenic bowel dysfunction, had what she called an “incontinent disaster” and the aides scheduled to work that day couldn’t show up, she called Ms. Coty, who was there 10 minutes later. Ms. Coty cleaned everything up and slept over the next two nights.

Ms. Coty resumed her post with Ms. Verchick and stayed through the pandemic. She left in July of this year to pursue other opportunities, but not before training Ms. Verchick’s new aides.

“I don’t know that she realizes on any level how meaningful it is,” Ms. Verchick said of Ms. Coty’s friendship.

Jennifer Guy Cook’s home was eerily quiet. So she filled it with the voices of strangers.

Ms. Cook, 68, had spent the past three-plus decades running a day care out of her home in Brighton, N.Y. When she shut down the business because of the pandemic, she landed a position with New York State’s Covid contact tracing initiative. She had found a purpose: helping people through a tough time in their lives.

For 20 hours per week, Ms. Cook would call people who had been in close contact with someone who had tested positive for Covid. Ms. Cook held the job only from December 2020 to June 2021, but she’s grateful for the connections she made.

“I wanted to be a part of helping,” Ms. Cook said. “I could certainly make phone calls.”

Amid the gray Brighton winter, Ms. Cook relished the human connection. (She would tease fathers who had forgotten their children’s birthdays, joking that mothers normally had a less difficult time remembering them.) Her job was, on the surface, informational: She was to provide facts about the virus and potential warning signs. But it turned into much more.

“Some of the people that I talked to were just in that situation of being scared, and being worried, and being worried for their children, or being worried for their parents,” Ms. Cook said.

That’s where Ms. Cook would interject with a light joke or words of encouragement. “It’s injecting your own humanity in the conversation,” she said. “And just by doing that, it changes everything.”

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