Queens, NY – March 30, marked National Doctors Day. But NYC Health + Hospitals and the Doctors Council SEIU kicked off their observances a few days early this month at Elmhurst Hospital to both cheer the skilled healers who care for our communities — and to honor the lives lost during the tumultuous first year of the coronavirus pandemic.
Approximately 200 doctors, nurses, medical staff, community leaders, elected officials and union leaders attended the March 25 event.
Dr. Frank Proscia, president of the Doctors Council SEIU, called it a “beautiful sunny day filled with a sea of white coats,” that was, nonetheless, heavy with solemnity.
“It’s hard enough to deal with one or two patients that are critical, but if you have back-to-back or side-by-side patients where you couldn’t even walk…or patients where everybody was Covid-positive — it’s extremely difficult,” Dr. Proscia said. “It was very much like being a battlefield medic.”
Indeed, the head of the Doctors Council likened the experience to a “war” — one that is having a profound and lasting impact on the entire medical community.
“I was choked up,” Dr. Proscia said. “These memories will live with us forever. These doctors are forever changed. These are not the same doctors that went through Covid-19 more than a year ago.”
Among the approximately 30,000 people that died from Covid-19 in New York City, 53 worked at NYC Health + Hospitals facilities.
“I think NYC Health + Hospitals doctors did a gargantuan job at steadying the ship in the storm,” Dr. Proscia said. “Elmhurst Hospital was the epicenter of the epicenter.”
According to Doctors Council Executive Director Kevin Collins, many members used the Doctors Council SEIU hotline to say goodbye to their family members.
“They didn’t think they would survive or make it home,” said Collins. “We also had family members that would call and cry on the phone — it was a very emotional experience.”
Dr. Proscia also said that in honoring doctors, the city needs to condemn racism within the healthcare community itself — including anti-Asian racism.
“We have to make sure that our communities of color are treated fairly,” Dr. Proscia said. “They should receive the resources necessary for their health, including the vaccinations.”
Fighting for doctors also includes recruiting future doctors, according to Dr. Proscia, so that patients will have enough physicians and other medical professionals to help them in an emergency or the next pandemic.
“This is a battle,” Collins added. “The doctors wearing the N95 masks, the goggles, the face shields, the hair nets, the surgical gowns and gloves — that was their armor. But the emergency room was beyond packed. There were ambulances around the block.”
Dr. Mitchell Katz, president and CEO of NYC Health + Hospitals, honored hospitals workers, saying, “I don’t need to tell anyone what a horrible year this has been. We lost people that we worked with side-by-side. They put themselves at risk, they intubated patients knowing the risks were particularly high and performed other invasive procedures. They always took care of their patients no matter what risks they put themselves in.”
Doctors go into medicine knowing they might lose people or that they may be at risk themselves, but the coronavirus was something unimaginable, Dr. Katz observed.
“I know that there are some people that are still traumatized,” Dr. Katz said. “I hope that everybody here, everybody at Health + Hospitals, and everybody in our broader medical community understands that we saved lives. We saved lives. The vast majority of people in the darkest day left the hospital alive.”
Queens Borough President Donovan Richards agreed.
“We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the doctors who have and continue to give so much of themselves to the well-being of the people of Queens, especially over the past year, as they cared for those stricken with COVID-19,” said Richards. “The great work of these frontline heroes attending to COVID-19 patients, along with their skill and dedication in addressing the many other health concerns, is truly inspirational and well worth acknowledging and celebrating, not only today, but every day.”