How NY hospital faced COVID devastation and came back from the brink

Nestled near LaGuardia Airport in Queens, New York, is Elmhurst Hospital Center, which serves millions in the world’s most diverse zip code. One year ago, the facility was dubbed “coronavirus ground zero” by one emergency room physician — being the hardest-hit hospital not only in New York City, but in the country.

PHOTO:People line up outside Elmhurst Hospital to get tested due to coronavirus outbreak on March 24, 2020 in Queens, N.Y.

Elmhurst had a patient roster that was over 230% capacity during the last week of February and the first week of March of 2020. Nearly all of those patients were critically ill with COVID-19. Within those walls, essential workers were overwhelmed with treating these patients. Staff witnessed extensive devastation as well as hundreds of lives lost.

PHOTO: Medical workers walk outside the Elmhurst Hospital Center Emergency Room during the coronavirus pandemic, April 20, 2020, in New York City.

March 2021 marks the anniversary of the pandemic overtaking Elmhurst Hospital. Now, the hospital’s essential workers are reflecting on last spring’s trauma.

PHOTO: Doctors and nurses with a COVID-19 patient at Elmhurst Hospital in New York, May 8, 2020.

“It was almost like a war,” said Dr. Joseph Lieber, a board-certified nephrologist and director of the Department of Medicine at Elmhurst Hospital Center. Lieber, who has worked at the hospital during tragedies including 9/11, Hurricane Sandy and the 2003 New York City blackout, said those other horrific tragedies paled in comparison to the early COVID-19 pandemic.

PHOTO: Ambulances are lined up outside of Elmhurst Hospital during the coronavirus pandemic, April 22, 2020, in Queens, N.Y.

“A lot of these events were quick and heavy-hit and then it kind of eases off; here it’s a heavy-hit and it doesn’t stop,” said Lieber, who worked every day at Elmhurst straight from the month of March until June.

PHOTO: A supply shelf in Elmhurst Queens hospital. Dr. Colleen Smith tells ABC News the orange bags are body bags for the deceased.

But over the course of the year since the pandemic first struck, the hospital, through better testing, knowledge about the disease and vaccination, has been able to turn the corner.

‘Very emotional’

At the beginning of the pandemic, the number of deaths from COVID-19 were too vast to keep up with, to the point that refrigerated trailer trucks had to store the bodies of the victims next to the hospital.

PHOTO: A refrigerated truck at Elmhurst Hospital to be used for holding deceased bodies.

“The worst thing I remember seeing was going to the emergency room and seeing bodies … in a huge storage area … they were waiting for trucks to come in to then store the bodies,” said Lieber. “We had two large trailers of bodies waiting to be claimed and processed.”

PHOTO: Dr. Joseph Lieber poses for a portrait at Elmhurst Hospital on March 19, 2021. He described the coronavirus pandemic with: "If you watch a war movie to see people shooting from all over, that's what this almost felt like.

On one day in March of last year, Elmhurst had 14 COVID-related deaths in a 24-hour period. The morgue was full, families of the victims couldn’t be with their loved ones.

PHOTO: Inside a COVID19 patient treatment area. Dr. Colleen Smith tells ABC News that multiple departments in the hospital have now been transitioned into the ICU as well.

“It was very emotional, very difficult,” said Ivan Torres, a social worker at Elmhurst. Normally, he would be able to interact in-person with the families; however, since families were restricted from the hospital as a safety precaution, he had to speak to his patients and their families on the phone, often unable to provide good news.

PHOTO:Ivan Torres, Elmhurst Hospital social worker, poses for a portrait in New York City on March 19, 2021.

Torres himself suffered from COVID-19 last March, requiring him to miss work and isolate at home for three weeks with his fiancée, who was then pregnant with their twin boys. While she did not contract COVID-19 and Ivan recovered, he said those weeks were the hardest they both had to face.

“One day I had a bad fever, and I couldn’t get out of bed, I couldn’t move. I just had to whisper to my fiancée, ‘can you go get me the Tylenol?'” Torres tearfully recalled. “That was the hardest part because I was afraid to go to sleep because I literally thought I wouldn’t wake up.”

PHOTO: Patients wear personal protective equipment while maintaining social distancing as they wait in line for a COVID-19 test at Elmhurst Hospital Center, March 25, 2020, in New York.

As the pandemic continued, many other Elmhurst staff contracted COVID-19 from working with patients on the front lines. Unfortunately, several of those staff members succumbed to the disease.

PHOTO: A group of medical workers inside Elmhurst's Emergency Room in Queens, N.Y.

“These people we see every day and these people are family to us,” said Paula Clarke, the evening administrator on duty at Elmhurst. “So, when this virus took them in that way, it was a shock to us.”

PHOTO: Paula Clarke, Elmhurst Hospital administrator, poses for a portrait at Elmhurst Hospital on March 19, 2021.

Clarke recalled moments during the initial peak of sitting alone in her car to prep herself for the start of another grueling night shift.

“I was sitting in the parking lot for an hour sometimes because I was fearful. I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “How am I going to FaceTime with a family member who’s about to lose a loved one?”

PHOTO: Workers wearing personal protective equipment bury bodies in a trench on Hart Island, April 9, 2020, in Bronx, N.Y.

‘Each month got better’

During the initial months of the pandemic, Elmhurst staff experienced unimaginable devastation. But as the year went on, the number of COVID cases and deaths related to COVID began declining at the hospital with increases in COVID testing and new protocols made in anticipation of surges in cases.

PHOTO: People wait for hours in long lines outside of Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens to be tested for coronavirus, March 25, 2020.

“Each month got better in terms of how the staff adapted to what we were really experiencing,” said Clarke. “It got better not in the sense that patients weren’t coming in sick, we felt like we finally had a grip of what our role was.”

PHOTO: Greeting cards for healthcare workers are seen inside the Elmhurst Hospital amid the coronavirus pandemic in Queens, N.Y., May 12. 2020.

The past year of non-stop work plus being away from family and friends had lasting effects on the Elmhurst staff — emotional and mental. “It has some remnants of PTSD in the sense that when someone gets brought in with COVID, you start to get nervous, not for yourself but for the patient because you really don’t know how the patient is going to regress with the disease,” said Torres.

PHOTO: A hospital worker cares for a patients with the coronavirus at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, May 8, 2020.

The staff at Elmhurst Hospital Center have seen the darkest days of the pandemic. More work still needs to be done and the hospital has not returned to its pre-pandemic routine.

PHOTO: A healthcare worker in personal protective equipment (PPE) walks outside Elmhurst Hospital during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Queens, N.Y., April 6, 2020.

Yet, with the administration of COVID vaccines to the staff and some patients late last year, the mood now circulating through Elmhurst has become one of positivity and hope. “I feel very confident with the rollout of the vaccines,” Torres said. “I feel confident we are going to get a really good handle on it and we will be able to protect everybody more than before.”

PHOTO: In a tribute to frontline health care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, a JetBlue passenger plane flies over NYC Health + Hospital/Elmhurst just before 7:00 pm, in Queens, N.Y, May 7, 2020.

“I learned that people are stronger than they give themselves credit for,” said Torres, now a father of healthy twin boys. “We as humans can come together to help each other.”

Alexis E. Carrington, MD, is a dermatology resident at George Washington University and a contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit. She completed her internal medicine preliminary year between July 2019 – July 2020 at Elmhurst Hospital. ABC News medical correspondent, Darien Sutton, MD, MBA, also contributed to this article.

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