“Lost on the Frontline” is a collaboration between The Guardian and Kaiser Health News that aims to document the lives of health care workers in the U.S. who die from COVID-19, and to understand why so many are falling victim to the pandemic.
Melissa Bailey, Kaiser Health News and Alastair Gee, The Guardian and Christina Jewett and Danielle Renwick, The Guardian and Sarah Varney, Kaiser Health News April 15, 2020
America’s health care workers are dying. In some states, medical staff account for as many as 20% of known coronavirus cases. They tend to patients in hospitals, treating them, serving them food and cleaning their rooms. Others at risk work in nursing homes or are employed as home health aides.
Some of them do not survive the encounter. Many hospitals are overwhelmed and some workers lack protective equipment or suffer from underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to the highly infectious virus.
Many cases are shrouded in secrecy. “Lost on the Frontline” is a collaboration between The Guardian and Kaiser Health News that aims to document the lives of health care workers in the U.S. who die from COVID-19, and to understand why so many are falling victim to the pandemic.
These are some of the first tragic cases.
California Nurse Thrived In ER and ICU, But Couldn’t Survive COVID-19
Age: 57 Occupation: Nurse Place of Work: St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Stockton, CaliforniaDate of Death: March 31, 2020
Jeff Baumbach, 57, was a seasoned nurse of 28 years when the novel coronavirus began to circulate in California.
He’d worked in the ER, the ICU and on a cardiac floor. Hepatitis and tuberculosis had been around over the years but never posed a major concern. He’d cared for patients who had tuberculosis.
Jeff and his wife, Karen Baumbach, also a nurse, initially didn’t consider it significantly riskier than challenges they’d faced for years.
“He’d worked in the ICU. He was exposed to so many things, and we never got anything,” she said. “This was just ramping up.”
One day during work, Jeff sent a sarcastic text to his wife: “I love wearing a mask every day.”
Within weeks, he would wage a difficult and steady fight against the virus that ended with a sudden collapse. Across the U.S., dozens of other health care workers have died, according to reports compiled by The Guardian and Kaiser Health News. The CDC has not yet issued a full tally, and many states have said little about how many health workers are dying.
Jeff was working at St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Stockton, California, about an hour south of Sacramento, where he was a case manager for Kaiser Permanente patients treated there. (Kaiser Health News is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.)
In mid-March, Jeff and his wife traveled to New York City to help their younger son, one of four adult children, settle into an apartment. As they were leaving, bars and restaurants were starting to shut down. The feeling set in that something serious was taking place.
Back home, Karen said her husband was notified that he may have been around a co-worker who tested positive for the coronavirus. Jeff would need to wear a mask. On March 23, he called in sick. The next day, he was told to get a COVID-19 test.
Jeff’s test was positive. Soon after, so was Karen’s. The couple hunkered down together at home, Karen with body aches and congestion and Jeff with a fever and cough.
Their home had been the site of countless family brunches and barbecues, for which Jeff was often the chef. It was where he solved massive jigsaw puzzles with his kids, sealed them together and put them on the ceiling of the garage.
Kaila Baumbach, 26, the last child living in their Lodi home, had moved out as a precaution. She and her dad were close. They had gotten tattoos together on a family trip to Hawaii. Hers, a peace sign. His had two large Celtic hearts and four smaller ones to represent his children. Kaila said she didn’t text or call her dad when he was sick.
“I thought he was invincible,” she said during a phone interview, through tears.
Karen took Jeff to the emergency room on March 26, where he was diagnosed with pneumonia, but chose to recuperate at home. On March 31, he collapsed in an upstairs bathroom.
“It was just like that,” Karen said. “It went downhill really fast.”
Karen called 911 and went with him to Adventist Health Lodi Memorial, the hospital where she worked. She sat in her car getting updates by phone. Kaila waited in another car.
The ventilator Jeff was connected to had little effect and he remained unresponsive.
When it seemed hopeless, Karen went in, suited with full protective medical gear, and told Jeff, her husband of 33 years, she loved him. The kids love him. And she was sorry.
“We both sat here all those days with him getting worse before my eyes and me not seeing it,” she said. “The doctor reassured me that several times people have seemed to be OK and then they just fall off and then it’s just too late.”
Karen returned home alone, still in quarantine.
The next day, Kaila organized about 50 family and loved ones to drive by the couple’s home and shine their phone flashlights to show support. Karen’s mother, Sharleen Leal, called her at 8 p.m.: “Look outside.”
Karen looked out an upstairs window. Lights from lines of cars going in both directions on the avenue shone bright. Grieving, and awash with gratitude, she cried.
She was born Divina Amo in the Philippine town of Alimodian, known for its sweet bananas. The eldest of four children, she was a precocious student. She finished high school at age 14 and had to wait a year to pursue her dream of nursing school. She graduated from Central Philippine University with a bachelor’s in nursing in 1969.
Yearning to move abroad, she applied to a “fly now, pay later” program for nurses and landed a job in Chicago, joining tens of thousands of Filipino nurses who have migrated to the United States. She later moved to Taylor, Michigan, where she married William Accad in 1985 and raised four children with him.
Her niece April Amada lives in Accad’s hometown. She remembers her aunt as a generous cook: A visit from Tita Debbie (Aunt Debbie) meant unli-kainan, or “unlimited food”: She served up big American breakfasts, cooked spicy kielbasa with cabbage and introduced her family to Jell-O.
Accad was the “pillar of the family,” Amada said, improving their quality of life by sending home money, and even supporting her younger sister through nursing school.
Amada said her aunt first signaled she was sick on the evening of March 16, telling relatives she had a fever and loose stool. On March 19, she reported feeling better by taking Tylenol.
But the following day, she was hospitalized with pneumonia, a complication of COVID-19. She told her family in the Philippines that she had tested positive for the disease caused by the coronavirus and asked them to pray for her and to spread the word to local pastors, Amada said.
Amada, who is also a nurse, said her family felt helpless watching their beloved matriarch suffer from afar, and being unable to travel to her bedside because of the infectious nature of the disease. They last saw her face on a video call.
Mark Accad, 36, who lives across the street from his parents, said his mother had diabetes, a risk factor for serious complications from COVID-19. In her last phone call with him, he said, she was preoccupied with her family’s health more than her own. But he could hear in her voice that she was worried.
“It’s just terrible that we all couldn’t be there for her,” he said.
Mark Accad said he believes his mother was exposed by infected co-workers, though that hasn’t been confirmed. She was a nursing supervisor who often stepped in to care for patients, he said.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is facing serious shortages in protective equipment for its health care workers, according to internal memos obtained by The Wall Street Journal. Mark Accad said he doesn’t know whether his mother had adequate protective gear.
In a statement, the Detroit VA Medical Center declined to comment on Accad’s case, citing privacy concerns, but confirmed that an employee of her age died from coronavirus complications.
The VA has “implemented appropriate measures to ensure the safest health care environment for each Veteran, visitor and employee,” including immediately isolating patients known to be at risk for a COVID-19 infection. As of Monday, nine VA health care workers systemwide had died of COVID-19 complications, and over 1,500 were being quarantined because of coronavirus infections, according to VA spokesperson Christina Noel.
Mark Accad said he would like his mother’s story to raise awareness of the risks health care workers face in the global pandemic.
“She’s a hero for what she did,” he said.
— Melissa Bailey | Published April 15, 2020
Nurse’s Faith Led Her To Care For Prisoners At A New Jersey Jail
Age: 60 Occupation: Nurse Hospital and Location: Hudson County Correctional Facility in Kearny, New Jersey Date of Death: April 5, 2020
Daisy Doronila had a different perspective than most who worked at the Hudson County Correctional Facility, a New Jersey lockup 11 miles from Manhattan. It was a place where the veteran nurse could put her Catholic faith into action, showing kindness to marginalized people.
“There would be people there for the most heinous crimes,” said her daughter, Denise Rendor, 28, “but they would just melt towards my mother because she really was there to give them care with no judgment.”
Doronila, 60, died April 5, two weeks after testing positive for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The jail has been hit hard by the virus, with 27 inmates and 68 staff members having tested positive. Among those, another nurse, a correctional officer and a clerk also died, according to Ron Edwards, Hudson County’s director of corrections.
The jail is the site of a major outbreak. According to published reports, another nurse and a correctional officer who worked there have died. More than 40 staffers and 20 inmates or immigration detainees had tested positive for COVID-19 as of April 6.
Hudson County and jail officials did not respond to calls or emails with updated numbers.
Doronila fell ill before the scope of the jail infections were known. She was picking up extra shifts in the weeks before, her daughter said, and planning on a trip to Israel soon with friends from church.
That plan began to fall apart March 14, when someone at the jail noticed her coughing and asked her to go home and visit a doctor.
Doronila, of Nutley, New Jersey, went to her doctor and a local hospital in the coming days but was told she had strep throat, so she wouldn’t get a coronavirus test. Then she was told her fever wasn’t high enough to merit a test.
Edwards, the jail chief, said Doronila offered to come back to work after she started feeling ill, not wanting to let him down. He told her to stay home and rest.
“She was one of my hardest workers,” he said, describing her as sophisticated, intelligent and compassionate. “Daisy could handle herself. If someone got obnoxious with her, she’d put them in their place and call for help if she needed to.”
As days went by in March, her condition got worse. Feeling breathless, she went to an urgent care center on March 21.
Her oxygen saturation level was 77 ― far below levels that should be close to 100 — so she was sent by ambulance to the hospital. The next day, she was transferred to the ICU, where she was put on a ventilator, never to talk to her family again.
Rendor, who was not allowed to visit her mother, said time crawled as she awaited updates from nurses and doctors.
On her fifth day in the hospital, her mother went into cardiac arrest and was revived. On Day Nine, she was put on dialysis.
By Day 14, it was futile.
Rendor said her mother emigrated from the Philippines as a young nurse. She loved to dress in fashionable clothes and eat seafood on the waterfront in New York City.
The two loved to shop together and were looking forward to the next chapters in life. For the mother, retirement at 65. For Rendor, marriage and perhaps starting her own family.
“It was about to get really, really good,” Rendor said.
— Christina Jewett, Kaiser Health News | Published April 15, 2020
An Army Veteran, Hospital Custodian ‘Loved Helping People’
Age: 54 Occupation: Environmental service assistant Place of Work: Rochester General Hospital in Rochester, New York Date of Death: March 17, 2020
Alvin Simmons started working as a custodian at Rochester General Hospital, in New York state, weeks before he fell ill. “He loved helping people and he figured the best place to do that would be in a hospital,” his sister, Michelle Wilcox said.
An Army veteran who had served in the first Gulf War, Simmons loved karaoke and doted on his three grandchildren, Wilcox said. “He was a dedicated, hardworking individual who had just changed his life around” since a prison stint, she said.
According to Wilcox, Simmons began developing symptoms shortly after cleaning the room of a woman he believed was infected with the novel coronavirus. “Other hospital employees did not want to clean the room because they said they weren’t properly trained” to clean the room of someone potentially infected, she said.
“They got my brother from a different floor, because he had just started there,” she said. (In an email, a hospital spokesperson said they had “no evidence to suggest that Mr. Simmons was at a heightened risk of exposure to COVID-19 by virtue of his training or employment duties at RGH.”)
On March 11, he visited the emergency room at Rochester General, where he was tested for COVID-19, Wilcox said. Over the next few days, as he rested at his girlfriend’s home, his breathing became more labored and he began to cough up blood. He was rushed to the hospital on March 13, where he was later declared brain-dead. Subsequently, he received a COVID-19 diagnosis. Simmons died on March 17.
Nurse At Nevada VA Dies After Caring For Infected Colleague
Age: 52 Occupation: Nurse Hospital and Location: VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System and Northern Nevada Medical Center in Reno, Nevada. Date of Death: April 7, 2020
Nurse Vianna Thompson, 52, spent two night shifts caring for a fellow Veterans Affairs health care worker who was dying from COVID-19.
Two weeks later, she too was lying in a hospital intensive care unit, with a co-worker holding her hand as she died.
Thompson and the man she treated were among three VA health care workers in Reno, Nevada, to die in two weeks from complications of the novel coronavirus.
“It’s pretty devastating. It’s surreal. Reno’s not that big of a city,” said Robyn Underhill, a night nurse who worked with Thompson in the ER at Reno’s VA hospital the past two years.
Thompson, who dreamed of teaching nursing one day, died April 7, joining a growing list of health care professionals killed in the pandemic.
Born Vianna Fye in Port Huron, Michigan, she became a go-getter nurse who worked almost exclusively at night, putting in five or six 12-hour shifts a week, according to her husband, Bob Thompson, 60.
The couple met in 1991 on the Osan Air Base in South Korea, where he was an inventory management specialist in the Air Force, and she was a veterinary technician in the Army, caring for military police dogs. They bonded over two-step dancing and country music.
Vianna was a “proud momma,” often showing off photos and videos of their three sons on her phone, her husband said. As the main breadwinner for over eight years, she juggled two jobs to make sure her boys had everything they needed, including saxophones, drums and keyboards so they could play jazz and country music. “She was just sweet, big-hearted, caring, unselfish,” he said.
Before she died, Thompson was working two jobs: full time in the ER at the VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System in Reno, and part time in the ICU at Northern Nevada Medical Center.
In the ICU, she tended to a fellow VA health care worker who had fallen ill with COVID-19, according to nurse Underhill. Two days later, on March 29, Thompson arrived at work with a cough.
“She came to work sick, and we were all very concerned,” Underhill said. “Call it intuition, call it ‘Spidey sense,’ but I knew that moment that she was coughing that this was not going to end well.”
Underhill said Thompson already had a slight smoker’s cough, so she may have overlooked the fact that her cough was a classic symptom of COVID-19.
“She was in denial that she was taking care of this high-risk population,” Underhill said. And she was reluctant to miss work.
That Sunday shift would be Thompson’s last. Over the next four days, she wrestled with fever, weakness and shortness of breath. The following Thursday, she texted her husband from the bedroom: “Call the ambulance, I can hardly breathe.”
She was taken to the VA hospital where she worked and immediately sedated and put on a ventilator.
The next Tuesday, her organs were failing and it was time to remove life support, her husband said. They connected him on FaceTime to say goodbye, and a nurse held her hand as she died.
As a veteran, she qualified for an “honor flight,” in which the patient’s body is covered with a black box, draped with an American flag and wheeled through the hospital while others line up and salute.
Because of the infectious nature of the coronavirus, a flag could not be safely draped over her body, so someone walked in front of her with a flag.
Bob Thompson said the honor flight ceremony drew more people into the hallways than staff had seen in 20 years, “all the way from the ICU to the morgue.”
“God’s getting a hell of a nurse,” he said.
— Melissa Bailey | Published April 15, 2020
Dr. J. Ronald Verrier Was Busy Saving Lives Before The Pandemic
Age: 59 Occupation: Surgeon Hospital and Location: St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, New York Date of Death: April 8, 2020
Dr. J. Ronald Verrier, a surgeon at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, spent the final weeks of his audacious, unfinished life tending to a torrent of patients inflicted with COVID-19. He died April 8 at Mount Sinai South Nassau Hospital in Oceanside, New York, at age 59, after falling ill from the novel coronavirus.
Verrier led the charge even as the financially strapped St. Barnabas Hospital struggled to find masks and gowns to protect its workers — many nurses continue to make cloth masks — and makeshift morgues in the parking lot held patients who had died.
“He did a good work,” said Jeannine Sherwood, a nurse manager at St. Barnabas Hospital who worked closely with Verrier.
“He can rest.”
Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Verrier graduated from the Faculté de Médecine et de Pharmacie in 1986 and trained at Lincoln Medical Center in the Bronx. He worked at St. Barnabas for two decades, performing thousands of surgeries on critically ill patients and trauma victims, while overseeing the general surgery residency program.
A towering presence with a wide, dimpled smile, Verrier watched his large flock closely — popping into patients’ rooms for impromptu birthday parties, pressing his medical school residents to sharpen their surgical skills and extinguishing doubt in bright, young minds.
“He kept pushing me forward,” said Dr. Christina Pardo, a cousin who became an obstetrician and gynecologist. “I would call him and say, ‘I swear I failed that test,’ and he would laugh. He was my confidence when I didn’t have it.”
“He was someone you’d love to see if you were having a bad day,” said Dr. Ridwan Shabsigh, chairman of the Department of Surgery at SBH Health System. “He would comfort your heart.”
The Verrier family stretches across continents — a boisterous crew of cousins who grew up as brothers and sisters, a pot of joumou, a spicy Haitian soup, always boiling somewhere.
Verrier, who spoke English, French and Creole, zipped around to a niece’s wedding in Belgium, a baptism in Florida, another wedding in Montreal. In February, he ferried medical supplies to Haiti, returning to St. Barnabas to fortify the hospital for the surge of coronavirus patients.
Verrier helped steer the hospital’s efforts to increase — by 500% — the number of critically ill patients it could care for, an effort he worked on until he became ill.
“He was at the hospital every day,” Shabsigh said. “This was a nonstop effort, day and night.”
Verrier discovered he was infected in early April. After developing symptoms, he worked from his Woodmere, New York, home.
Undaunted, he did not want to talk about being sick. “He has this personality that, ‘Everything is going to be OK,’” said Pardo.
Shabsigh spoke with him the day before his death.
“He understood the coronavirus, he understood the pandemic,” he said. “He still maintained a high morale and hope that he would recover.”
When his condition worsened suddenly, according to Pardo, Verrier was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital where he died.
After a powerful earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, Verrier tended to victims, treating dozens of patients who required amputations at a Port-au-Prince hospital.
“Sometimes you use a little anesthesia and you cut the limb,” Verrier said soberly in a video recorded at the time. “Because you have to save a life.”
America’s First ER Doctor To Die In The Heat Of COVID-19 Battle
Age: 60 Occupation: Doctor Hospital and Location: St. John’s Episcopal in Queens, New York, and East Orange General in New Jersey Date of Death: March 26, 2020
At about 5 a.m. on March 19, a New York City ER physician named Frank Gabrin texted a friend about his concerns over the lack of medical supplies at hospitals.
“It’s busy ― everyone wants a COVID test that I do not have to give them,” he wrote in the message to Eddy Soffer. “So they are angry and disappointed.”
Worse, though, was the limited availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) — the masks and gloves that help keep health care workers from getting sick and spreading the virus to others. Gabrin said he had no choice but to don the same mask for several shifts, against Food and Drug Administration guidelines.
“Don’t have any PPE that has not been used,” he wrote. “No N95 masks ― my own goggles — my own face shield,” he added, referring to the N95 respirators considered among the best lines of defense.
Less than two weeks later, Gabrin became the first ER doctor in the U.S. known to have died as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the American College of Emergency Physicians.
— Alastair Gee, The Guardian | Published April 10, 2020
This story is part of “Lost on the Frontline,” a project from The Guardian and Kaiser Health News that aims to document the life of every health care worker in America who dies from COVID-19 during the pandemic. If you have a colleague or loved one we should include, please share their story.