On the first day that he was supposed to work from home in early April and abruptly realized he couldn't get out of bed, Dr. Leonard Davidman assumed guilt was behind it.
When the coronavirus turned into a pandemic the previous month, he would later say, "I got a lot of calls from people, including psychologists" in both the public and private sectors saying they were fearful of contracting the disease if they went into their offices.
'Going to Abandon People?'
"I'd say, 'You're going to abandon people, work at home?'" recalled Dr. Davidman, the senior Psychologist at Metropolitan Hospital Center, who also heads Psychologists Local 1189 of District Council 37.
He would then tell them, "You're special? No. You should keep going to work."
His bosses within New York City Health+Hospitals were giving him a different message, one that had logic behind it. Dr. Davidman was 72 years old, and "I did have pre-existing chronic medical situations." And so their telling him, "Lenny, take good care of yourself" and mentioning Matilda's Law, named for Governor Cuomo's mother and meant to protect older people by permitting them to work from home, wore down his resolve.
'Couldn't Wake Up at All'
But on the first day of his new worklife, April 6, he didn't feel well and called Metropolitan to inform his superiors that he was going to have to take a sick day. For each of the following two days, he didn't eat and didn't get out of bed. "I was just sleeping and fatigued," he recalled.
And on April 9, noting it was the first day of Passover, Dr. Davidman said, "I couldn't wake up at all," despite his wife prodding him by lifting his arms, then lifting his legs. She finally summoned help, saying he was unresponsive. That was the same report the Emergency Medical Technicians gave when they brought him to Mount Sinai West, formerly Roosevelt Hospital, not far from his Upper West Side apartment.
There he was placed on oxygen and an IV, and a test for the coronavirus came back positive. By the following day, he said during a June 22 phone interview, "I was in a room."
He was given hydroxychloroquine, as well as a blood-thinner to prevent clots.
There had been one point when he considered the possibility he could die: "when I wound up in the emergency room I was really afraid" once he became fully conscious. He remembered being barraged with questions about whether he'd consent to being intubated and undergo chest compressions, and because of his condition, his wife had been unable to accompany him.
"It was all very quick, it was rapid-fire questions," Dr. Davidman said. "My oxygen level was very low."
Slow to Comprehend
"I didn't know what was going on, but it felt like they were taking care of me," he added. "It took me half a day to understand why I was admitted." Once he did, he worried that if he had to be placed on a respirator, he might not come off it.
When he was moved to a private room, his fear subsided."Once I got admitted [as an in-patient], I didn't feel like I was gonna die, because I didn't have to be on a ventilator, I didn't have to be intubated." But, Dr. Davidman said, "Once I was stabilized, that's when I got a feeling of how sick I was," largely because the pneumonia from which he was suffering made it difficult to breathe.
"After four days, I could breathe without the oxygen," he recalled. "They said, 'We're gonna send you home: you can get better there,'"
"Home" had to change because of his condition and lingering concerns that he could infect his wife. "We have no idea if the antibodies work, if they're effective," he explained. "I could still bring it home."
And so, "I slept on the couch in the living room," which he continues to do more than two months after being discharged from the hospital. Initially, he said, his wife "did not want to get close to me, did not want to catch it. She would put down food on the table and walk away."
It wouldn't be until mid-June that they resumed eating together, and Dr. Davidman and his wife still use separate cups, plates and utensils, as well as towels.
Couldn't Keep Out Reality
Once he returned home, "I did not open the TV or look at the news for a month," he said. Reality intruded anyway. He learned that a friend and fellow psychologist, Jean Lau Chin had died of the coronavirus, not long after her husband, Gene Chin, passed away from it. A mental-health staffer at Metropolitan had also succumbed to the disease.
He informed management at Metropolitan of his condition, saying, "Theoretically they didn't know my diagnosis—but I told them. He also informed District Council 37 Executive Director Henry Garrido, "but I said, 'No memos—I don't want phone calls.' I'm not ashamed of having it; I just didn't want to be bothered with phone calls and emails."
As he continued to recuperate at home, Dr. Davidman said, "I didn't get cabin fever. I didn't mind being confined, because I knew it was helping me to get better."
He has worked for the city hospital system for nearly 50 years, meaning a generous pension under Tier 2 of the city retirement system awaits him. "There are friends who say I should retire," he said. "I like to work."
Not Worthy of Cheers?
And a part of him felt excluded from the nightly ritual in his building and other high-rises surrounding it during which at 7 p.m. tenants would open their windows or step onto their balconies and applaud in tribute to health-care workers and other essential employees.
"I'm a first-responder, I'm an essential worker," Dr. Davidman said, "but I was home. My feeling was, they're clapping for those workers, but right now I'm not one of them.
"And," he said, "I felt guilty that I wasn't able to help the staff [at Metropolitan] because I'd gotten sick. I'd tried to keep myself healthy: I used sanitizer, washed my hands, wore a mask...It was a rude awakening" when he got the disease despite his precautions.
But his medical doctor had written his superiors at Metropolitan, he said, stating that she didn't want him returning there 14 days after he came home "because of my age and I'm high-risk."
He took part in hospital-staff meetings via Zoom, but "I couldn't do much work at home."
Helps Staff Cope
He is co-chair of H+H's Employee Wellness Committee and its Helping Healers Heal, which was created by H+H CEO Mitchell Katz and Chief Quality Officer Eric Wei after success with a similar program while working in the California hospital system. The latter program allows medical staffers to discuss among themselves the traumas they endure at work, often related to feelings of helplessness when their patients die.
Before becoming ill, Dr. Davidman had led some of the de-briefings. "I did one with Anesthesiologists many months ago; I had no idea how much stress they went through. We're taking care of [doctors'] needs more than we ever did."
He also cited a case in which a truck had struck a baby carriage, and staffers at Metropolitan were unable to save the infant. "The whole ER staff was freaked out," he said. "Just imagine" dealing with far more deaths in a short period due to the coronavirus.
And the stress was spread to a far-larger portion of hospital staff, he said.
"The patient escorts were suddenly required to carry dead bodies down to the morgue" instead of wheeling out patients who had just been discharged, he said. "The clericals would see the people [with the virus] before they went to the doctors, and so they're traumatized. The housekeeping staff who had to mop the rooms after COVID patients died, they're all worried they'll come down with something. And we're just trying to make the doctors and nurses feel they're cared for."
'This is Not Gonna End'
Asked how long he expected de-briefings connected to the coronavirus would continue, Dr. Davidman said, "I don't know. This is not gonna end—this is part of general hospital protocol."
His first day back at Metropolitan was June 18, and he stuck to his old routine, taking the train uptown to West 96th St. and then picking up the crosstown bus to get to the hospital deep on the Upper East Side. The perils presented by mass transit didn't faze him, he said: "I carry my hand sanitizers in my pocket. If I was touching something, I would try to use my arm."
Asked how that shift went, he said, "I worked a full day. I felt good. A little anxious. My major reaction was, I missed almost the whole month of April and the month of May.
He deals with adolescents who are psychiatric in-patients, while also writing appeal letters to insurance companies that have either denied them coverage or given them less than the hospital believes it should receive in reimbursement. He said there was reason for optimism in the decline from 60-70 people daily who were on ventilators with the virus at Metropolitan prior to his getting sick to about 10 now.
"Theoretically I could be reinfected," Dr. Davidman said."But probably not. Part of me asks, what am I doing? But it's healthy for me to work. I was taking a risk before I got sick. I'm taking a risk again. I could have taken medical leave, but I didn't want to do that."
He continued, "I want to work. Now, I'm more energized to get the job done."