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Urban Prayer
Brooklyn, April 16, 2020 (Photo by Walter Wlodarczyk)

Lorraine Ash 
May 8, 2020  

The long hand of COVID-19 snatched Barbara from our family. Barbara, one life of 8,952 lost, according to the latest death chart. Barbara, who I just found after untangling reams of genealogical records and crossing a desert of family estrangement. Barbara, who I was never supposed to meet.  

In 2015 I called her husband, Gene, my cousin, and introduced myself. We decided to meet some weeks later at an Atlanta Bread on a highway. Barbara came to support him that day, standing by his side, pretty as a picture with short blonde hair and a red outfit. She extended her hand.  

We all sat in a booth where she listened to us trade more than a century of stories and pictures. We filled in blanks for each other. I had a huge one. Barbara, mother of four, had met the grandmother I never knew. She understood the wound and scrambled for a connection. 

“I have her roasting pan at home,” she told me, her easy smile lighting up her face. “I use it every Thanksgiving. After all, she was Gene’s aunt. Sometimes she came over to the house for picnics.” 

After decades of no contact, she produced the only tangible thing left to bridge three generations—a roasting pan. In the moment her acuity and sensitivity delighted me. Not everyone would have been as thoughtful or as willing. 

“You must come to the house,” she said. “We’ll have lunch.”  

So a few weeks later I ventured to their house on a lake. At age fifty-six, for the first time, I set foot in a home from that side of the family. Just walking over the threshold felt magical and right. We sat in a room like an art gallery, eating a delicious gluten-free meal she’d lovingly prepared as Gene and I talked on. After a time, we moved past the ancestors and into our own lives—who we were, where we’d been, what we’d done. Just like a family does. 

Even at eighty, Barbara, a painter, still worked in an art gallery. She loved her art. It was everywhere in their home. She loved her home. She loved her husband, her children, her grandchildren and, very clearly, her life. She had love to spare. 

Just as she was to end a successful treatment program in a rehab facility, the virus came. Having no mercy for the weak, it killed her quickly. We’d had no past. It took our future. The news of her death jolted me. The jolt affirmed the connection, so I was glad to feel it.   

Like a black wave, death had taken unreconciled family members for decades. No one was ever notified. No one cared to notify. Many times, news of a death would have been like news of the death of a stranger, anyway. 
Like all the memorial services, Barbara’s will be sometime in the future. Whenever it is, I will be there to mark her passing, to say goodbye, to say, “I knew her.” 

I started my quest to find my long-gone grandmother, who had abandoned her own children. Barbara had given me a piece of that long-lost past. But the truth is, she gave me more than my grandmother ever would have. She gave me a piece of herself. She stood in that terrible void and imbued it with her grace. And no virus can kill that kind of humanity. 

Lorraine Ash, MA, is a New Jersey-based book editor, author, and literary coach.

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Dr. Ferreras in his hometown of Lumban, Philippines giving a holiday meal, December 2017 (Courtesy of Nico Ferreras, MD)

Nico Ferreras, MD 

My father, Jessie Ariel Ferreras, MD, worked a long weekend March 20-23, 2020. A family physician in Waldwick, New Jersey, he was very proud to be an everyday doctor who specialized in everything. The four-day stretch was no different as he tested many patients for COVID-19.  

That Monday, upon his return from work, he didn’t feel well. His own COVID-19 test had come back positive. Yet he sat at his home desk on March 24, and every day thereafter, with a long list of patients’ names. Following each was a “+” or “-.” One by one, he called to give them their results and instructions. That’s the way he’d been with his patients for twenty-five years—devoted.  

“If there’s no improvement or if you have any concerns, don’t hesitate to call the office,” he always said. 

On April 2, supposedly his tenth day with COVID symptoms, he had a fever but said he was fine, not short of breath. He had dinner and went to bed. So it was a shock when the next day, April 3, his health took a turn for the worst. He passed away at home in the arms of his loving wife and my mother, Madonna, a nurse. He was only sixty-two. 

His passing marked the end of a short yet wonderful life. The eldest of six, my father grew up in Lumban, a small provincial town in Laguna, Philippines. From the start, he dreamt of becoming a doctor and serving those around him. Knowing the path wouldn’t be easy, he worked tirelessly to make his dream a reality for himself and his family, friends, and future patients.  

He studied medicine at the University of Santo Tomas Faculty of Medicine and Surgery (UST FMS). After graduating, he pursued medical training in the United States and completed his residency in family medicine at JFK Medical Center in Edison, New Jersey. He found a second home at work where he managed patients from children to the elderly and cases from the common cold to chest pain.  

His clinical skills, ranging from suturing lacerations to ear irrigations and Pap smears, were matched only by his kindness and compassion. Everyone he came into contact with loved him. One of my father’s colleagues called him a “trusted friend and the backbone of the office.” Nurses admired his dedication. He often called patients on his free time, as he did the week before he died. He gave them lab results and updates; he knew they were waiting. He refilled prescriptions; he knew they needed their medications.  
To patients, he was more than an approachable compassionate doctor who took his time to address their concerns. He was a friend, a shoulder to lean on, an extended member of the family. 

And yet he was more than a family physician. He was a family man, happily married for thirty-two years. Even with a busy schedule, he found time to go to sporting events with me and my brother, Ryan, and to see Broadway shows with our mother. As a family, we traveled the world. He encouraged my brother and me to enjoy our lives and pursue careers we’d enjoy. Ryan, an avid hip-hop dancer, works as a software engineer. Like my father, I’m a doctor in family medicine. 

I will never forget my beautiful upbringing, just as my father never forgot where he came from. In 2008 he and his siblings started a yearly family tradition: they donate a holiday meal to three hundred fifty families in Lumban so no one goes hungry during the Christmas season. He visited as often as he could and was very fond of family get-togethers and class reunions.  

After his passing, my mother, brother, and I learned of hundreds of people who loved and cared about my dad. His medical school classmates created a Facebook tribute page and posted memories and pictures of him. On April 12, Easter Sunday, his coworkers and friends formed a drive-by procession in front of our house. They got out of their cars and, one by one, left pictures, flowers, cards, and candles in honor of Dr. Ferreras.  

Beloved patients have sent cards and letters recounting memorable experiences. One wrote about her lack of follow-up from a specialist.  

“Your father persisted,” she said. “He did not give up calling me till he got a response. He told me I had pneumonia.” 

Another told the story of how Dr. Ferreras had helped in every aspect of his life for more than twenty years.  

My dad’s passing was made more memorable when people donated on his behalf. The money went to COVID-19 response efforts, including PPEs. He would have liked that. 

Though COVID-19 took his life at the early age of sixty-two, he had checked off all the boxes for a meaningful life. He’d found his true calling, married his one true love, and seen his sons become men. He healed the sick, traveled the world, and made the lives around his better. He lives on through the lives he touched, so he goes down in history as a hero.  

And I do my best to follow in his footsteps as the next “Dr. Ferreras,” though, for now, hearing people address me that way always reminds me of him.  

Nico Ferreras, 30, graduated Boston College and, like his father, earned his medical degree at UST FMS. He is currently a first-year resident in family medicine at Meadville Medical Center, Pennsylvania.

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Sharing the Love
This #WeWillHugAgain yard sign, created by a Bethlehem, Pennsylvania printing service,
appears throughout the New York Metro Area, May 2020 (Photo by Lorraine Ash)

Jean Sheff
May 12, 2020

I hear him as he slides the key into my front door lock. The sound of metal on metal makes my insides lurch, but I swivel my desk chair to face the door. Michael and I have navigated the twenty-five minutes between our homes for four years with a boldness we no longer possess. 

When the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders went into effect, we were each in our own homes.  

“Jean, with your autoimmune issues, I’m the worst thing for you,” he said. “I couldn’t bear it if you got sick.”  

That wasn’t what I wanted to hear. Though I’d been working from home, I’d lost my job because of the virus, just as millions of others had. I was looking at painfully empty days. Yet, he was right. Michael works in the medical field and he’d been seeing patients until our world shuttered closed. Yes, quarantining for two weeks was judicious. 

We called one another two or three times a day. We relied on each other to ease the endless hours. Things were grim. New cautions were issued daily. The rules changed by the hour. If you dared to go outside, you had best suit up like an astronaut walking on the moon. We got skittish and held off getting together for another week, then another. People we knew were getting sick. His aunt and uncle, who lived in a local senior center, were whisked off to a hospital. Five days later they were both dead. With funerals banned, we couldn’t gather to find comfort. Everyone cried at home alone.   

Before we knew it, another several weeks passed. We kept flip-flopping on when to break the quarantine. Where was my bravery? I felt shallow. One night I invited him to dinner for the following day. He called early the next morning. His throat was sore, he said, and his eyes were watering. We cancelled. Paranoia had found a home. A cough felt fatal. I vacillated between feeling ridiculous and not cautious enough. The separation was getting painful. We consulted doctors, friends, and family. No one could reassure us. No one knows what safe is anymore. To get together, we’d have to just take our chances. 

So here we are. He’s arriving for dinner, and I’m jumpy. He creaks the door open, as if he’s afraid, too. I stand. We look at each other. We try to smile. He extends his hand, offering me a dozen ruby roses cradled in cellophane. I want this scene to be different. It should evoke the iconic 1945 Eisenstaedt photo of an impassioned sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square at the end of World War II. Or if not that, then why not the scene in countless films and a legion of novels—two amorous people huddled tightly together as the bombs drop around them? 

But in this time of COVID-19, touching is dangerous. I try to will the dread away. Yet fear is insidious. It creeps into every chink in the foundation of my soul. I step forward and take the roses, then open my arms to him. We hug. It feels like there’s a saguaro cactus wedged between our chests. It hurts. I turn my head into his shoulder and grab him tighter. For the rest of the evening we’re careful with each other. After dinner we watch some television and relax enough to hold hands. He rises to leave and we hug again, but we don’t kiss.  

Being deprived of touch feels cruel. In so many ways it sustains me. I miss human contact, from a dear one’s hug to a friendly handshake to a lover’s embrace. With masks shielding us from one another, I even miss seeing the smiles of people I don’t know. But this is the new human condition.  

Later, I get into bed and cocoon myself in the covers. I’m lonelier now than at any time during the seven weeks we spent apart. I turn over, wondering how we’ll come together again. Still, we’re just two. How will everyone in this country, in this world, ever come together again?   

I challenge myself: if I weren’t thinking so much about this, what would I be feeling? I can’t go there. I shut down. An anthem enshrines this pandemic—“We’re in This Together.” Maybe that’s because, as in birth and death, the truth is, we’re in this alone.  

Jean Sheff holds a BFA from Adelphi University. She is an award-winning, New York-based writer and editor. Jean is devoted to her daughter, Juliana, and enjoys teaching Pilates.

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One of several tents prepared for the overflow from the Emergency Department at Hackensack University Medical Center, March 31, 2020 (Courtesy of the Teaneck Volunteer Ambulance Corps)

Margaret Buchanan, March-June 2020

I am writing this from a remote cottage in Maine. Luckily, my reservation, made in January, wasn’t cancelled. I am grateful to be here, albeit in mandatory quarantine, because I need to recharge. The words of Jerry Garcia flow through my mind frequently: “What a long strange trip it’s been!” It feels long, but it’s only been three months.

Everything changed on March 12—how I think, how I work, how I live. At work in New Jersey, management announced the office would close the following day, Friday. It wasn’t a firing or a layoff. It was COVID-19. As instructed, my coworkers and I reported to the office Monday to collect items at our desks, including our computer monitors, so we could work remotely. We said our goodbyes at an impromptu socially distanced meeting. The time frame given was approximately a week. We all knew better.

Life also changed at the Closter Volunteer Ambulance and Rescue Corps (CVARC) in New Jersey where I volunteer with an incredible group of people from all walks and stages of life. When COVID-19 struck many of our members stood down due to personal reasons, health, or age. Making the decision not to respond was difficult for them. Responding in times of need is what we do. Many continued in other ways, behind the scenes.

More than ever, all our friends and family members, especially my mom, worried for our safety. And the fear of bringing home the virus was ever present. It still is.

Early on the corps set up strict COVID-19 protocols for 911 responses and aligned ourselves with the police department, most often the first to arrive on a scene. Little did we know how fast we’d need to use them.

Days later, my night crew got dispatched for an elderly person who had passed out in the local shopping center parking lot. It was early evening and the weather was beautiful. It wasn’t too cold for a March night; crowds were walking about, enjoying themselves, visiting the eateries, catching a movie. When we arrived with the ambulance, the patient was still lying on the ground. Two EMTs from a nearby volunteer agency saw the patient go down and were in attendance. I thanked them for their help and assumed patient care.

I asked the first protocol question: “Are there any flu-like symptoms present?”

The family stated the patient had been released from the hospital a few days earlier—with the flu. The flu. The word set off my inner panic. They may as well have said COVID.

The rest of the new protocols came into play: Put on full Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Allow no family members to accompany the patient to the hospital. Limit the crew to two in the back of the rig with the patient—and one driver. Regretfully, I sent two crew members back to headquarters.

The protocols became ever so important for our health and safety in the months that followed. A core group of us continued responding to calls throughout the pandemic. The unspoken mentality was, fasten your seat belts and ride this until the end. In all honesty, it was a very frightening ride—charging into unknown territory that was also unfair because, as the virus progressed, the rules changed almost daily.

The familiar ER staffs changed frequently, too. Doctors and nurses were brought in from other areas of the hospital or out of state. During normal times the entire crew, which could be as many as six people, entered the ER and transferred patient care to the ER nurse. A quick process. For the most part, PPE consisted of gloves.

The new rules were more strict. Upon arrival at the ER, one EMT went inside and gave a report on the patient. Next, only two crew members—the maximum number allowed—brought in the patient. The original request was to have only one EMT accompany the patient. Although that could be done, it was difficult for only one person to navigate a stretcher through the ER. We were required to be in full PPE—gloves, gown, N95 mask, and goggles—and the patient had to wear a surgical mask. Some hospitals had teams at the door who prescreened all who entered—bouncers, so to speak.

The number of COVID-19 cases in the Northern Valley were not as high as those our southern neighbors experienced, but we had our fair share. I’ve been in the back of the rig with some very sick patients and haven’t always heard the outcomes. I could only do our job and hope for the best. My heart goes out to the sick and families who’ve been subjected to this unbearable pain.

It’s time to return to New Jersey; I’ve escaped long enough. I will remember the absolute quiet just after sunrise in Maine and the mesmerizing glitter of the late afternoon sun over the ocean. I certainly hope another wave of COVID doesn’t happen, but I know we are better prepared for the next round.

Margaret Buchanan is a graphic designer and first lieutenant at Closter Volunteer Ambulance and Rescue Corps (CVARC). She joined nine years ago with her son, also an EMT. Neither would trade the experience for anything.

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