Lost on the front line: These are the medical professionals tragically taken by COVID-19

(Courtesy photos collected by KHN and the Guardian)

America’s healthcare 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 healthcare workers in the U.S. who die of COVID-19, and to understand why so many are falling victim to the pandemic.

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These are some of the first tragic cases.

An animal lover who loved aerospace, she died alone at home

Courtesy of
Aubree Farmer

Lisa Ewald

Age: 53
Occupation: Registered nurse
Place of Work: Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit
Date of Death: April 1, 2020

Lisa Ewald was a nurse to many living things, human and otherwise.

When her neighbor Alexis Fernandez’s border collie had a stomach blockage, Ewald hooked the dog up to an IV four times a day. “She was this dedicated nurse who nursed my dog back to health,” Fernandez said.

Ewald told Fernandez that a patient she had treated later tested positive for COVID-19, and that she was not wearing a mask at the time. Two days later, after seeing the patient, she got sick. After delays in accessing a test, she learned on March 30 that she was infected with the coronavirus.

A hospital spokesperson acknowledged that staff who treat coronavirus patients have a higher risk of exposure, but said there was “no way to confirm” how a staff member contracted the virus.

On March 31, Ewald didn’t answer when Fernandez texted her. The next day, Fernandez and a hospital nurse went to Ewald’s home to check on her and found her unresponsive on the couch.

“I said, ‘Aren’t you going to go take her pulse or anything?’” Fernandez said. “The nurse just said, ‘She’s gone.’”

— Melissa Bailey | Published May 5, 2020


An ardent EMT who seemed to have nine lives

Courtesy of Ben Geiger

Scott Geiger

Age: 47
Occupation: Emergency medical technician
Place of Work: Atlantic Health System in Mountainside and Warren, New Jersey
Date of Death: April 13, 2020

Scott Geiger wasn’t always enthusiastic about school, but at age 16 he brought home a tome the size of two phone books. It was a manual for emergency medical technicians, and he devoured it, said his younger brother, Ben Geiger.

Scott was certified as an EMT at 17. He never married or had kids, but did not seem to miss those things.

“He was so focused on being an EMT and helping people in their most vulnerable and desperate moments,” Ben said. “That’s really what made him feel good.”

Scott loved playing pool each week with friends. He was a loyal New York Jets football fan, content to joke about their follies and watch them lose. He was quiet. And he seemed to have nine lives, his brother said, surviving hospitalizations for epilepsy as a kid and blood cancer around age 40.

When the coronavirus began to tear a path through northern New Jersey, he faced his EMT work with resolve. He downplayed his symptoms when he first fell ill in late March but wound up spending 17 days on a ventilator before he died. The family has had to mourn separately, with the brothers’ father, who lived with Scott, in quarantine, and their mother confined to her room in a nursing home that has COVID-19 cases.

— Christina Jewett, Kaiser Health News | Published May 5, 2020


Caring nurse 'always put herself last'

Theresa Lococo

Age: 68
Occupation: Pediatric nurse
Place of Work: Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, New York
Date of Death: March 27, 2020

Theresa Lococo spent most of her life at the hospital, working as a pediatric nurse for almost 48 years.

“There wasn’t a day that goes by she wouldn’t come home and tell me about her patients,” said her daughter, Lisa Lococo. “She had to be forced to take her vacation days.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio publicly saluted her lifelong service to New Yorkers, saying, “She gave her life helping others.”

Theresa had dogs—“sometimes too many,” Lisa said—and lived with her son, Anthony, in the home she owned for decades. She loved cooking and watching cooking shows, reading and following soap operas.

Theresa wasn’t tested for COVID-19. But Kings County Hospital, in Brooklyn, was hit hard by the coronavirus.

Days before dying, she described nausea. Friends recalled a cough. Her supervisor encouraged her to stay home, her daughter said.

Lisa called her mother on March 27, just as Anthony was dialing 911 for help.

“She always put others first,” Lisa said. “She always put herself last.”

— Shefali Luthra, Kaiser Health News | Published May 5, 2020


He was full of life and planning for the future

Felicisimo “Tom” Luna

Age: 62
Occupation: Emergency room nurse
Place of Work: Trinitas Regional Medical Center in Elizabeth, New Jersey
Date of Death: April 9, 2020

Tom Luna was a joker, a lively and outgoing man who thrived on the fast-paced and varied action of the emergency room. He also adored his three daughters, something clear to all who knew him.

“Tom was a fantastic emergency nurse. He was well-liked and loved by his peers,” Gerard Muench, administrative director of the Trinitas emergency department, said in a statement. “His greatest love was for his wife and daughters, who he was very proud of.”

His oldest daughter, Gabrielle, 25, followed his path to become an ER nurse. When Tom fell ill with the coronavirus, he was admitted to the hospital where she works. At the end of her 12-hour night shifts, she made sure he had breakfast and helped him change his clothes. She propped a family photo next to his bed.

Tom’s wife, Kit, also a nurse, said that when some of his symptoms appeared to let up, they talked about him recovering at home. He was a planner, she said, and was already talking about their next family vacation, maybe to Spain.

— Christina Jewett | Published May 5, 2020


Air Force veteran went 'above and beyond for patients'

Michael Marceaux

Age: 49
Occupation: Registered nurse
Place of Work: Christus Highland Medical Center and Brentwood Hospital in Shreveport, Louisiana
Date of Death: April 16, 2020

After Michael Marceaux retired from the Air Force, he went back to school. In 2018 he launched a new career as an emergency room nurse.

“Everyone who worked with him said he was so happy,” said Drake Marceaux, one of his four sons. “He was willing to go above and beyond for patients.”

As the coronavirus spread throughout Louisiana, Michael developed a cough and fever. Soon afterward, he tested positive for COVID-19.

“He didn’t seem too worried,” Drake said. “He just wanted to make sure not to give it to other people.”

A spokesperson with Christus Health said Michael would be missed for “how he always had a positive attitude, even after a hard shift. His laughter brought joy to others.” The spokesperson declined to answer questions about workplace safety conditions.

Drake said he wanted his father to be remembered for how much he was loved.

His funeral was livestreamed on Facebook. “At one point, there were 2,000 viewers watching his service,” Drake said. “As much as he didn’t want attention, it gravitated toward him.”

— Victoria Knight, Kaiser Health News | Published May 5, 2020


She loved to give gifts and never forgot her hometown

Celia Lardizabal Marcos

Age: 61
Occupation: Telemetry charge nurse
Place of Work: CHA Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles
Date of Death: April 17, 2020

Whenever she traveled to her hometown of Tagudin in the Philippines, Celia Lardizabal Marcos showered family with gifts and delighted in planning weekend outings for everyone, said her eldest son, Donald.

And when she returned home to California, she brought presents for her sons. “She always thought of how her family could be happy,” he said.

Trained as a nurse in her home country, Marcos emigrated to the United States in 2001 and settled in Los Angeles. Three years later, she became a telemetry charge nurse, a specialist who tracks patients’ vital signs using high-tech equipment.

On April 3, she was one of three nurses who responded after a suspected COVID patient went into cardiac arrest. Wearing a surgical mask, she intubated the patient. Three days later, she had a headache, body aches and difficulty breathing.

Her symptoms worsened, and she was admitted April 15 to the hospital where she had worked for 16 years. That was the last time Donald spoke to his mother. Two days later, she went into cardiac arrest and died that night.

Her sons plan to honor her wishes to be cremated and buried in Tagudin, alongside her parents.

— Christina M. Oriel, Asian Journal | Published May 5, 2020


'Hero among heroes,' doctor cared for generations of patients

Francis Molinari

Age: 70
Occupation: Physician
Place of Work: Private practice in Belleville, New Jersey; privileges at Clara Maass Medical Center
Date of Death: April 9, 2020

In late March, Dr. Francis “Frankie” Molinari told his sister Lisa he was “down for the count,” with chills, fever and trouble breathing.

“Frankie, you know what you have,” she recalled telling him.

“Yes.”

Two days later, he collapsed at home and was rushed to Clara Maass Medical Center. Colleagues stayed by his side as he succumbed to COVID-19.

“We take solace in the fact that he was cared for by colleagues and friends who deeply loved and respected him,” his sister Janice wrote in a blog. “He died a hero among heroes.”

Molinari, a New Jersey native who was married with an adult daughter, was the oldest of four siblings. His sisters describe him as a positive guy who loved music, fishing and teasing people with tall tales: He went to medical school in Bologna, Italy, and he liked to say he had played pinochle with the pope.

Molinari practiced medicine for over four decades, caring for generations of patients in the same family. His family suspects he contracted the coronavirus at his private practice.

“A friend had once described us as four different legs of the same table,” Janice wrote. “Now I’m stuck on the fact that we are only a three-legged table. Less beautiful, less sturdy. Broken.”

— Laura Ungar, Kaiser Health News | Published May 5, 2020


5-foot-tall 'fireball' was a prankster to her sons

Celia Yap-Banago

Age: 69
Occupation: Registered nurse
Place of Work: Research Medical Center in Kansas City, Missouri
Date of Death: April 21, 2020

Celia Yap-Banago was a 5-foot-tall “fireball,” said one co-worker. She had moved to the U.S. from the Philippines in 1970 and worked for nearly 40 years for the HCA Midwest Health system. Her family said she was planning for retirement.

Her son Josh said she showed her love through practical jokes: “You knew she loved you if she was yelling at you or if she was pranking you.”

“She was very outspoken,” said Charlene Carter, a fellow nurse. “But I later learned that’s a really good quality to have, as a nurse, so you can advocate for your patients and advocate for yourself.”

In March, Yap-Banago treated a patient who later tested positive for COVID-19. Carter said Yap-Banago was not given personal protective equipment because she was not working in an area designed for COVID patients. She spent her final days in isolation to protect others.

A spokesperson for HCA Midwest Health said that medical staff received adequate personal protective equipment in line with CDC guidelines.

Josh said she spoke with reverence of her patients and their families. “She was always focused on the family as a whole, and that the family was taken care of, not just the patient in the bed,” he said.

— Alex Smith, KCUR | Published May 5, 2020


In ministry and rescue missions, 'He put his all into it'

Billy Birmingham Sr.

Age: 69
Occupation: Emergency medical technician
Place of Work: Kansas City Missouri Fire Department
Date of Death: April 13, 2020

Bill Birmingham Jr. fondly remembers the year his father took on a new career. The whole family studied, even acting out scenes to ensure Billy Birmingham Sr., a minister, was ready for his emergency medical technician exam.

“He put his all into it,” the son recalled.

Billy Birmingham passed the test. And from the late 1990s on, he served as an EMT and a minister.

His family rallied again for his doctorate in pastoral theology. During nearly four decades as a minister, he founded two churches.

“He had a heart for other people,” his son said. “Whatever he could do for other people, he would do it.”

As an EMT with the Kansas City Fire Missouri Department, he was exposed to the novel coronavirus. The cough came in March.

“‘I’m just tired.’ That’s what he kept saying,” his son said. His dad went to the hospital twice. The first time he told the staff about his symptoms and underlying health conditions, then they sent him home.

The second time he arrived in an ambulance. Just over two weeks later, his final hours arrived.

Hospital staff set up a video chat so his family could see him one last time.

— Cara Anthony, Kaiser Health News | Published May 1, 2020


Jovial man trained scores of doctors in obstetrics, gynecology and kindness

Luis Caldera-Nieves

Age: 63
Occupation: OB-GYN doctor
Place of Work: University of Miami and Jackson health systems in Miami
Date of Death: April 8, 2020

“Somos felices.” That was Dr. Luis Caldera-Nieves’ signature signoff after a cesarean section or patient visit or at the end of a difficult shift. “We’re happy,” he meant, and often, when he was around, it was true.

Caldera-Nieves, a popular OB-GYN, trained scores of doctors and helped bring thousands of babies into the world in his 25 years at the University of Miami and Jackson health systems.

Born in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, he worked as an Air Force doctor before joining UM, said longtime co-worker Dr. Jaime Santiago. Caldera-Nieves was so devoted to his patients that he often gave them his private phone number — and his wife’s, Santiago said.

Because he was so jovial, he earned the nickname “the Puerto Rican Santa Claus,” Santiago said.

“He was truly loved and admired by everyone who worked with him, and will be remembered for his humor and never-ending positive energy,” said Dr. Jean-Marie Stephan, who trained under Caldera-Nieves.

In a statement, UM and Jackson confirmed Caldera-Nieves died from complications of COVID-19 and said they “grieve the loss of our esteemed and beloved colleague.” He is survived by his wife and six adult children.

— Melissa Bailey | Published May 1, 2020


A cluster of illness robs community of another fearless EMT

Kevin Leiva

Age: 24
Occupation: Emergency medical technician
Place of Work: Saint Clare’s Health in Passaic, New Jersey
Date of Death: April 7, 2020

When Kevin Leiva died of COVID-19 in early April, it was a second crushing loss to his close-knit team of EMT workers. Their colleague, Israel Tolentino Jr., had died one week before.

“People were scared that everyone was going to die from it,” said Vito Cicchetti, a director at Saint Clare’s Health, where the men worked. “After Izzy died, we all started getting scared for Kevin.”

Leiva, according to an obituary, “was always worried about his crew.” He was “very proud” of his work and was recalled to have said that “becoming an EMT was an act of God.”

He met his wife, Marina, online while they were in high school. She moved a thousand miles to build a life with him. He loved spending time at their home, playing guitar and tending to his tegu lizards, AJ and Blue.

As COVID-19 ramped up, the station’s three ambulances each handled up to 15 dispatches a shift, roughly double the usual number. In a busy 12-hour shift, EMTs often responded to calls continuously, stopping only to decontaminate themselves and the truck.

Leiva “always had a joke” that helped to defuse stressful situations and bring his co-workers together, Cicchetti said.

— Michelle Andrews | Published May 1, 2020


Firefighting and 'helping people' were in his blood

John Schoffstall

Age: 41
Occupation: Paramedic and firefighter
Place of Work: Terre Haute Fire Department in Terre Haute, Indiana
Date of Death: April 12, 2020

John Schoffstall grew up around firehouses, and it was at his own firehouse in Terre Haute, Indiana, that he was exposed to the coronavirus.

A paramedic and firefighter with the Terre Haute Fire Department for almost 12 years, Schoffstall died April 12 at age 41. Deputy Chief Glen Hall said investigations by the county health department and his own department “determined John contracted the virus from another firefighter in the firehouse.” Four other firefighters “had symptoms but none progressed.”

“We respond every day to potential COVID patients,” Hall said.

Jennifer Schoffstall, his wife of 18 years, said her husband went to the hospital March 28.

“His breathing was so bad in the ER, they just decided to keep him,” she said. “He regressed from there.”

Hall said Schoffstall’s “biggest hobby was his family,” with a son, 17, and a daughter, 13.

Schoffstall’s father had been a volunteer firefighter, Jennifer said, and her husband signed up for the New Goshen Volunteer Fire Department when he turned 18.

“He loved the fire service and everything about it,” she said. “He loved helping people.”

— Sharon Jayson | Published May 1, 2020


Boston nurse, a former bus driver, was a champion for education

Rose Taldon

Age: 63
Occupation: Nurse
Place of Work: New England Baptist Hospital in Boston
Date of Death: April 12, 2020

Rose Taldon was just 5 feet tall. But when she bellowed out the window, her kids ran right home.

“She didn’t take any crap,” said her daughter, Teadris Pope.

Taldon raised three children with her husband on the street where she grew up in Dorchester, Boston. She was respected as a strong black woman, earning a nursing degree while working in public transit for 23 years. Described as stern, she still was quick to tickle her eight grandkids.

Taldon was generous: Even as she lay in a hospital in April, exhausted from the coronavirus, she arranged to pay bills for an out-of-work friend, her daughter said.

It’s unclear whether Taldon caught the virus at her hospital, designated for non-COVID patients. Hospital officials said three patients and 22 staff have tested positive.

Once her mother was hospitalized, Pope couldn’t visit. On Easter morning, a doctor called at 2 a.m., offering to put Taldon on a video call.

“I just talked until I had no words,” Pope said. “I was just telling her, ‘We’re so proud of you. You worked so hard raising us. … You’ve gone through a hell of a fight.'”

An hour later, her mother was gone.

— Melissa Bailey | Published May 1, 2020


Unflappable first responder with an ever-ready smile

Israel Tolentino Jr.

Age: 33
Occupation: Emergency medical technician and firefighter
Place of Work: Saint Clare’s Health and the Passaic Fire Department, both in Passaic, New Jersey
Date of Death: March 31, 2020

When Israel Tolentino Jr. arrived for his EMT shift one morning in March, he seemed fine. Then he got a headache. Then a fever came on, and he was sent home, said Vito Cicchetti, a director at Saint Clare’s Health.

Izzy, as he was called, was an EMT who fulfilled his dream to become a firefighter. In 2018, the former Marine took a job with the Passaic Fire Department but kept up shifts at Saint Clare’s.

He was husband to Maria Vazquez, whom he’d met at church, according to nj.com. They had two young children.

The work pace could be brutal during the pandemic. In a 12-hour shift, Tolentino and his partner were dispatched to one emergency after another, each typically lasting under an hour but requiring nearly that long to decontaminate their gear and truck.

Izzy died in hospital care. The coronavirus tore through his EMT team. Most eventually recovered. But his friend and co-worker Kevin Leiva also died.

Izzy’s unflappable, cheerful presence is missed, Cicchetti said: “No matter how mad you were, he’d come up with a smile and you’d be chuckling to yourself.”

Cicchetti hasn’t replaced either man: “I don’t know if I’m ready for that yet.”

— Michelle Andrews | Published May 1, 2020


Their decadelong dream marriage ends in nightmare

Capt. Franklin Williams

Age: 57
Occupation: Firefighter and medical first responder
Place of Work: Detroit Fire Department in Detroit
Date of Death: April 8, 2020

Capt. Franklin Williams stood at the altar on his wedding day and pretended to hunt for the ring. He patted his chest, then his pants legs and looked up at his soon-to-be wife with a million-dollar smile.

He was always clowning and “so silly,” said Shanita Williams, his wife, recalling how he wanted to make her laugh. Williams, 57, died from complications of the novel coronavirus on April 8—one month before the couple’s 10-year wedding anniversary.

Williams had been on an emergency call with a verified COVID patient before falling ill, according to Detroit Fire Department Chief Robert Distelrath. He died in the line of duty.

Crews are equipped with personal protective equipment including a gown, N95 mask and gloves. But it’s easy for a mask to slip―“when you’re giving [chest] compressions, your mask isn’t staying in place all the time,” said Thomas Gehart, president of the Detroit Fire Fighters Association.

When Williams fell sick on March 24, he moved to the guest bedroom and never returned to work.

“I’m thankful and thank God for having him in my life,” Shanita said, adding that she keeps hoping this is a nightmare and she’ll soon wake up.

— Sarah Jane Tribble, Kaiser Health News | Published May 1, 2020


A 9/11 first responder, he answered the call during the pandemic

Mike Field

Age: 59
Occupation: Volunteer emergency medical technician
Place of Work: Village of Valley Stream on New York’s Long Island
Date of Death: April 8, 2020

Mike Field had a strong sense of civic duty. An emergency medical technician, he was a first responder with the New York Fire Department (FDNY) on 9/11. He was also a member of his community’s all-volunteer fire department since 1987.

After he retired from FDNY in 2002, he took a job making and posting street signs with his local public works department. He continued to volunteer with Valley Stream’s fire department and mentoring the junior fire department. When he wasn’t responding to emergencies or training future emergency technicians, he led a Boy Scout troop and volunteered for animal causes.

“Here’s somebody who cares about the community and cares about its people,” said Valley Stream’s mayor, Ed Fare, who had known Mike since the seventh grade.

Stacey Field, Mike’s wife, said he found his calling early, after his own father experienced a heart attack. “When the fire department EMTs came and helped his dad, he decided that’s what he wanted to do,” she said.

Their three sons―Steven, 26; Richie, 22; and Jason, 19—have followed in their father’s footsteps. Steven and Richie are EMTs in New York; Jason plans on training to become one as well. All three volunteer at the same fire station their father did.

In late March, Mike and fellow volunteer responders were called to an emergency involving a patient showing symptoms of COVID-19. Field died on April 8.

— Sharon Jayson | Published April 29, 2020


Nurse fought for his life in same ICU where he cared for patients

Ali Dennis Guillermo

Age: 44
Occupation: Nurse
Place of Work: Long Island Community Hospital in East Patchogue, New York
Date of Death: April 7, 2020

In 2004, Ali Dennis Guillermo, his wife, Romielyn, and their daughter came to New York from the Philippines to find a better life.

Everything fell into place. The former nursing instructor landed a job at Long Island Community Hospital, often working in intensive care or the emergency room. He enjoyed the intensity of ER work, his wife said. As years passed, the couple had two sons and settled into a close-knit Filipino community.

As COVID-19 emerged, Guillermo was posted to the step-down floor, working with patients transitioning out of intensive care.

A lot of the nurses on his floor had gotten sick with the virus, his wife said, and “everybody was scared.”

And then, Guillermo felt achy, with a fever that soared to 102. He went to the hospital and X-rays were taken, but he was sent home. Within days, his blood oxygen level plummeted.

“My nails are turning blue,” he told his wife. “You should take me to the ER.”

He was admitted that night in late March, and they never spoke again.

In the ICU unit where he’d often worked, Guillermo was intubated and treated. Nearly two weeks later, he died.

— Michelle Andrews | Published April 29, 2020


An eager student, he aimed to become a physician assistant

James House

Age: 40
Occupation: Registered nurse
Place of Work: Omni Continuing Care nursing home in Detroit
Date of Death: March 31, 2020

James House had a voracious appetite for learning about and a fascination with the human body.

His sister, Catrisha House-Phelps, traces it back to childhood visits to a dialysis center where their father received treatments. “That was what tugged at his heart,” she said. “He just always wanted to know ‘why.’”

House-Phelps said her brother adored his five children, treasured his anatomy and physiology books and got a kick out of the residents he cared for at Omni Continuing Care. “He thought they were family; he just said they were funny people,” she said. He had hoped to go back to school to become a physician assistant.

House came down with what he thought was the flu in mid-March. His sister said he tried to get tested for COVID-19 but was turned away because he was not showing textbook symptoms and had no underlying health issues. On March 31, after resting at home for over a week, House returned to work. Hours later, he collapsed and was rushed to the hospital.

He texted his sister with updates on his condition. “I’m about to be intubated now,” he wrote. It was the last message he sent her.

— Danielle Renwick, The Guardian | Published April 29, 2020


She loved a parade and catering to patients

Pamela Hughes

Age: 50
Occupation: Nursing home medication aide
Place of Work: Signature HealthCARE at Summit Manor in Columbia, Kentucky
Date of Death: April 13, 2020

Pamela Hughes lived her entire life in rural Columbia, Kentucky, but longed for wide, sandy beaches. For vacation, Hughes and her daughter, Brie, 26, eagerly drove 14 hours to Daytona Beach, Florida, or Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

After high school, Hughes worked at Summit Manor, a nursing home in Columbia, for 32 years. She knew which residents preferred chocolate milk or applesauce with their medication; she remembered their favorite outfits and colors. Hughes’ shy demeanor vanished each December when she and co-worker Angie McAllister built a float for the town’s Christmas parade competition.

“We built 10 floats over 10 years,” McAllister said. “We got second place every year.”

Even after several residents tested positive for the coronavirus, Hughes dismissed her worsening cough as allergies or bronchitis. The nursing home was short on help and she wanted to serve her patients, Brie said.

Days later, the public health department suggested her mother get tested. She tested positive, and her health worsened — food tasted bitter, her fever soared, her hearing dulled. On April 10, Hughes was taken by ambulance to a hospital, then by helicopter to Jewish Hospital in Louisville. Barred from visiting, Brie said goodbye over FaceTime.

— Sarah Varney, Kaiser Health News | Published April 29, 2020


The family matriarch and 'We’re failing miserably without her'

Aleyamma John

Age: 65
Occupation: Registered nurse
Place of Work: Queens Hospital Center in New York City
Date of Death: April 5, 2020

Aleyamma John’s family wanted her to retire. Her husband, Johnny, an MTA transit worker, had stopped working a few years earlier. He and their son Ginu urged her to follow suit. “We told her, ‘I’m sure Dad wants to see the world with you — you need to give him that opportunity,’” Ginu said.

She demurred. “I think she found fulfillment in being able to serve,” Ginu said. “She was able to hold people’s hands, you know, even when they were deteriorating and be there for them.” She began her career as a nurse in India 45 years ago; she and her husband emigrated to the United Arab Emirates, where their two sons were born, and moved to New York in 2002.

Ginu said his mother, a devout Christian, found joy in tending to her vegetable garden and doting on her two grandchildren. She cooked dishes from her native India and filled the Long Island home she shared with Johnny, Ginu and Ginu’s family with flowers.

In March, as Queens Hospital Center began to swell with COVID-19 patients, John sent her family a photo of herself and colleagues wearing surgical hats and masks but not enough personal protective equipment. Days later, she developed a fever and tested positive for the virus. Johnny, Ginu and Ginu’s wife, Elsa, a nurse practitioner, also became ill.

When John’s breathing became labored, her family made the difficult decision to call 911. It would be the last time they saw her. “We’re 17 days in, and I feel like we’re failing miserably without her,” Ginu said.

— Danielle Renwick, The Guardian | Published April 29, 2020


'A kind man' looking forward to retirement

Thomas Soto

Age: 59
Occupation: Radiology clerk
Place of Work: Woodhull Medical Center, a public hospital in Brooklyn, New York
Date of Death: April 7, 2020

After more than 30 years at one of New York City’s busy public hospitals, Thomas Soto loved his job but was looking forward to retiring, said his son, Jesse Soto, who lived with him.

At Soto’s busy station near the emergency room, he greeted patients and took down their information.

“Everybody saw him before their X-rays,” Soto, 29, said. “He smiled all day, made jokes. He was a kind man.”

As COVID patients began to overwhelm Woodhull and other emergency rooms across the city, Soto said that at first, his father didn’t have any protective gear.

He eventually got a mask. But he still grew very sick, developing a high fever, body aches and a wracking cough. After a week, Soto said, “he couldn’t take it anymore.”

He went to Woodhull, where he was admitted. When they tried to put him on a ventilator two days later, he died. The hospital did not respond to requests for comment.

— Michelle Andrews | Published April 29, 2020


'Blooming' in her first job on path to becoming a nurse

Valeria Viveros

Age: 20
Occupation: Nursing assistant
Place of Work: Extended Care Hospital of Riverside, California
Date of Death: April 5, 2020

At 20 years old, Valeria Viveros was “barely blooming,” developing the skills and ambition to pursue a nursing career, said Gustavo Urrea, her uncle. Working at Extended Care Hospital of Riverside was her first job.

Viveros, born in California to Mexican immigrants, grew attached to her patients at the nursing home, bringing them homemade ceviche, Urrea said. About a month ago, as he watched her cook, play and joke with her grandmother, he noticed how much her social skills had grown.

When she would say “Hi, Tío,” in her playful, sweet, high-pitched voice, “it was like the best therapy you could have,” Urrea recalled. Viveros, who lived with her parents and two siblings, was enrolled in classes at a community college.

Viveros felt sick on March 30, went to a nearby hospital and was sent home with Tylenol, Urrea said. By April 4, she couldn’t get out of bed on her own. She left in an ambulance and never came back.

“We’re all destroyed,” he said. “I can’t even believe it.”

On April 5, county health officials reported a coronavirus outbreak had sickened 30 patients and some staff at her nursing home. Trent Evans, general counsel for Extended Care, said staffers are heartbroken by her death.

Viveros was “head over heels in love with the residents that she served,” he said. “She was always there for them.”

— Melissa Bailey | Published April 29, 2020


Surgical technician made friends everywhere she went

Monica Echeverri Casarez

Age: 49
Occupation: Surgical technician
Place of Work: Detroit Medical Center Harper University Hospital in Detroit
Date of Death: April 11, 2020

Monica Echeverri Casarez was in constant motion, said her husband, Jorge Casarez. The daughter of Colombian immigrants, she worked as a Spanish-English interpreter in clinical settings. She was the kind of person whose arrival at a mom and pop restaurant would elicit hugs from the owners. She also co-founded Southwest Detroit Restaurant Week, a nonprofit that supports local businesses.

Twice a month, she scrubbed in as a surgical technician at Harper University Hospital. “She liked discovering the beauty of how the body works and how science is clear and orderly,” Casarez said. She was organized and intuitive, qualities that are assets in the operating room. On March 21, she posted a photo of herself in protective gear with the caption: “I’d be lying if I said I wasn't at least a bit nervous to be there now.” Since many elective surgeries had been canceled, Echeverri Casarez was tasked with taking the temperatures of people who walked into the hospital and making sure their hands were sterilized.

Soon after, Echeverri Casarez and Casarez began feeling ill. Quarantined together, Echeverri Casarez tried to make the best of the situation. She baked her husband a cake — chocolate with white frosting. She died a few days later.

— Danielle Renwick, The Guardian | Published April 24, 2020


A whip-smart neurologist endlessly fascinated with the brain

Gary Sclar

Age: 66
Occupation: Neurologist
Place of Work: Mount Sinai Queens in New York City
Date of Death: April 12, 2020

Gary Sclar was a whip-smart neurologist who loved comic books, “Game of Thrones” and “Star Wars,” said his daughter, Jennifer Sclar. He was deeply compassionate with a blunt bedside manner.

“My dad was fascinated with the brain and with science,” Jennifer Sclar said. “His work was his passion, and it’s what made him the happiest, besides my brother and me.” Set to retire in June, he was looking forward to writing about politics and neurology.

Gary Sclar saw patients who were showing COVID-19 symptoms and knew his age and underlying health conditions―he had diabetes—put him at risk for developing complications from the illness. His daughter pleaded with him to stop going to the hospital.

In early April, he mentioned having lost his sense of smell, and on April 8 he collapsed in his home. He was hospitalized a few days later and agreed to be intubated. “I don’t think he realized, like, that this was the end,” Jennifer Sclar said. “He brought his keys. He brought his wallet.”

— Danielle Renwick, The Guardian | Published April 24, 2020


An exacting but loving aunt, she was a mentor until the end

Araceli Buendia Ilagan

Age: 63
Occupation: Intensive care unit nurse
Place of Work: Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami
Date of Death: March 27, 2020

For Jhoanna Mariel Buendia, her aunt was a constant―if distant—presence. Araceli Buendia Ilagan emigrated from their hometown Baguio, in the Philippines, to the U.S. before Buendia was born, but she remained close to her family and communicated with them nearly every day.

“She was one of the smartest people I ever knew,” Buendia, 27, said. Buendia Ilagan, who at one point looked into adopting her niece so she could join her and her husband the United States, encouraged Buendia to become a nurse, and talked her through grueling coursework in anatomy and physiology. Buendia is now a nurse in London.

Buendia Ilagan was also demanding. “Whenever she visited the Philippines, she wanted everything to be organized and squeaky-clean,” Buendia said.

The last time the two spoke, in late March, Buendia Ilagan didn’t mention anything about feeling ill. Instead, the two commiserated over their experiences of treating patients with COVID-19; as always, her aunt offered her advice on staying safe while giving the best possible care. She died four days later.

— Danielle Renwick, The Guardian | Published April 22, 2020


A beloved geriatric psychiatrist and church musician remembered for his cooking skills

Leo Dela Cruz

Age: 57
Occupation: Geriatric psychiatrist
Place of Work: Christ Hospital and CarePoint Health in Jersey City, New Jersey
Date of Death: April 8, 2020

Dr. Leo Dela Cruz was nervous about going to work in the weeks before he died, his friends said. Like many in the region, Christ Hospital had an influx of COVID-19 patients and faced a shortage of ventilators and masks.

Dela Cruz was a geriatric psychiatrist and didn’t work in coronavirus wards. But he continued to see patients in person. In early April, Dela Cruz, who lived alone, complained only of migraines, his friends said. Within a week, his condition worsened, and he was put on a ventilator at a nearby hospital. He died soon after.

Friends said he may have been exposed at the hospital. (In a statement, hospital representatives said he didn’t treat COVID-19 patients.)

Dela Cruz, the oldest of 10 siblings, came from a family of healthcare professionals. His friends and family—from Cebu, Philippines, to Teaneck, New Jersey—remembered his jovial personality on Facebook. He won “best doctor of the year” awards, played tennis and cooked traditional Cebu dishes.

Nida Gonzales, a colleague, said he always supported people, whether funding a student’s education or running a church mental health program. “I feel like I lost a brother,” she said.

— Ankita Rao, The Guardian | Published April 22, 2020


Alabama nurse remembered as selfless but sassy

Rose Harrison

Age: 60
Occupation: Nurse
Place of Work: Marion Regional Nursing Home in Hamilton, Alabama
Date of Death: April 6, 2020

Rose Harrison, 60, lived to serve others―her husband, three daughters, grandchildren and the residents of the nursing home where she worked. Though the Alabama nurse was selfless, she also had a sassy edge to her personality and a penchant for road rage, her daughter, Amanda Williams said.

“Her personality was so funny, you automatically loved her,” Williams said. “She was so outspoken. If she didn’t agree with you, she’d tell you in a respectful way.”

Harrison was not wearing a mask when she cared for a patient who later tested positive for COVID-19 at Marion Regional Nursing Home in Hamilton, Alabama, her daughter said. She later developed a cough, fatigue and a low-grade fever, but kept reporting to duty all week. Officials from the nursing home did not return calls for comment.

On April 3, Williams drove her mother to a hospital. The following evening, Harrison discussed the option of going on a ventilator with loved ones on a video call, agreeing it was the best course. Williams believed that her mother fully expected to recover. She died April 6.

— Christina Jewett, Kaiser Health News | Published April 22, 2020


Connecticut social worker had angelic singing voice and a zest for life

Curtis Hunt

Age: 57
Occupation: Social worker
Places of Work: Cornell Scott-Hill Health Center and New Reach, both in New Haven, Connecticut
Date of Death: March 23, 2020

At a shelter for adults recovering from addiction, residents looked forward to the days when Marion “Curtis” Hunt would take the stage, emceeing talent shows and belting out Broadway and gospel tunes.

It wasn’t part of his job description as a social worker. It was just one of the ways he went “above and beyond,” said his supervisor at Cornell Scott-Hill Health Center, Daena Murphy. “He had a beautiful voice,” she said. “He was just a wonderful person—funny, engaging, always a huge smile on his face.”

Hunt, the youngest of four brothers, earned his master’s in social work from Fordham University at 52, and was baptized at his brother’s Pentecostal church at 54. He was a devoted uncle who doted on his dog and cat, Mya and Milo.

It’s unclear how Hunt got infected, but one patient he worked with had tested positive for COVID-19, as did two co-workers, according to Dr. Ece Tek, another supervisor at Cornell Scott-Hill Health Center. Hunt died on March 23, one week after developing flu-like symptoms, said his brother John Mann Jr.

— Melissa Bailey | Published April 22, 2020


To the end, King-Smith was driven by a desire to help others

Kim King-Smith

Age: 53
Occupation: Electrocardiogram technician
Place of Work: University Hospital in Newark, New Jersey
Date of Death: March 31, 2020

Kim King-Smith was a natural caregiver. An only child, she grew up close to her extended family, including her cousins Hassana Salaam-Rivers and Sharonda Salaam. After Salaam developed multiple sclerosis, King-Smith visited her every day.

“She’d bring her sweets that she wasn’t supposed to have and share them with her,” Salaam-Rivers said. King-Smith’s desire to care for others was the reason she became an electrocardiogram technician, her cousin added. “If a friend of a friend or family member went to the hospital, she would always go and visit them as soon as her shift was over,” she said.

In March, King-Smith cared for a patient she said had symptoms of COVID-19; she soon fell ill herself and tested positive for the virus. It seemed like a mild case at first, and she stayed in touch with family via FaceTime while trying to isolate from her husband, Lenny.

On March 29, Salaam-Rivers checked in on her cousin and noticed she was struggling to breathe. She urged her to call an ambulance. After King-Smith was hospitalized, she exchanged text messages with her mother and cousin. As the day progressed, her messages carried increasingly grave news, Salaam-Rivers said. Then she stopped responding.

— Danielle Renwick, The Guardian | Published April 22, 2020


On the eve of retirement, VA nurse succumbs to COVID-19

Debbie Accad

Age: 72
Occupation: Clinical nursing coordinator
Place of Work: Detroit VA Medical Center in Detroit, Michigan
Date of Death: March 30, 2020

Nurse Divina “Debbie” Accad had cared for veterans for over 25 years and was set to retire in April. But after contracting the novel coronavirus, she spent her final 11 days on a ventilator—and didn’t survive past March.

She joined a growing list of healthcare professionals working on the front lines of the pandemic who have died from COVID-19.

Accad, 72, a clinical nursing coordinator at the Detroit VA Medical Center, dedicated her life to nursing, according to her son Mark Accad.

“She died doing what she loved most,” he said. “That was caring for people.”

Read more here.

— Melissa Bailey | Published April 15, 2020


California nurse thrived in ER and ICU, but couldn't survive COVID-19

Jeff Baumbach

Age: 57
Occupation: Nurse
Place of Work: St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Stockton, California
Date 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.

Read more here.

— Christina Jewett, Kaiser Health News | Published April 15, 2020


Nurse's faith led her to care for prisoners at a New Jersey jail

Daisy Doronila

Age: 60
Occupation: Nurse
Place of Work: 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.

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.

Read more here.

— Christina Jewett, Kaiser Health News | Published April 15, 2020


An Army veteran, hospital custodian 'loved helping people'

Alvin Simmons

Age: 54
Occupation: Environmental service assistant
Place of Work: Rochester General Hospital in Rochester, New York
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.

— Danielle Renwick, The Guardian | Published April 15, 2020


Nurse at Nevada VA dies after caring for infected colleague

Vianna Thompson

Age: 52
Occupation: Nurse
Places of Work: 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 healthcare 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 healthcare 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 healthcare professionals killed in the pandemic.

Read more here.

— Melissa Bailey | Published April 15, 2020


Dr. J. Ronald Verrier was busy saving lives before the pandemic

J. Ronald Verrier

Age: 59
Occupation: Surgeon
Place of Work: St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, New York
Date of Death: April 8, 2020

J. Ronald Verrier, M.D., 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.”

Read more here.

— Sarah Varney, Kaiser Health News | Published April 15, 2020


America’s first ER doctor to die in the heat of COVID-19 battle

Frank Gabrin

Age: 60
Occupation: Doctor
Places of Work: 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 healthcare 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.

Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit health newsroom whose stories appear in news outlets nationwide, is an editorially independent part of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

This story is part of “Lost on the Frontline,” an ongoing project from The Guardian and Kaiser Health News that aims to document the lives of healthcare workers in the U.S. who die from COVID-19, and to investigate why so many are victims of the disease. If you have a colleague or loved one we should include, please share their story.

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