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Retired Buffalo doctors answered the call to help in NYC

Two retired Buffalo doctors recently helped Covid-19 patients in New York City in what one likened to "a giant M*A*S*H unit."

The couple, Elisabeth Zausmer and Angel Gutierrez, both retired internists and primary care physicians, volunteered at the Jacob K. Javits Center in Manhattan. They were part of a beehive of activity in a giant, makeshift field hospital with 2,500 beds overseen by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to relieve pressure on hospitals dealing with the health crisis.

"I'm really glad we did it," Zausmer said. "We filled some small holes in a giant system, and I think we made a difference for the people we worked with."

The couple got involved after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said he was seeking retired doctors to lend a hand in New York City. Neither felt confident returning to practice but found other ways to help behind the scenes during their stint from April 10 to April 22.

With large parts of hospitals in and around New York City being converted into intensive care units, Covid-19 patients in recovery were transferred to the Javits Center in Manhattan until they could live without being hooked up to oxygen and were strong enough to leave.

The couple worked in the Javits Center's Command Center located four floors above the ground floor hospital. Hundreds of doctors, nurses and others from the military also occupied the converted space reserved in normal times for conventions and car shows.

The Javits Center had a peak of 424 patients, and saw its largest one-day admission of 119 the day before the couple arrived.

Zausmer said they felt underused the first few days, but found their niche helping to return messages in a timely fashion at a family call center. The couple heard from families, got updates from the hospital and called the families back.

"When I was doing that I felt great," Zausmer said. "People were so unbelievably happy to hear anything because they had been waiting, and it was really scary for them."

Gutierrez called the scene inside the Javits Center "productive chaos."

"In 'M*A*S*H,' it was chaos but things got done," he said in reference to the TV show whose title stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. "We were walking around with all kinds of different military uniforms, and the whole thing was a military operation with the name Operation Gotham 2020.  We were the civilians in there."

Gutierrez said the typical patient could walk but required oxygen. The average stay was four to five days.

"The quick turnover required a high working intensity," he said. "You had to move fast."

During those two weeks, Gutierrez said there were four deaths and estimated 15 to 20 patients were transferred back to the hospital they came from due to declining health.

Something that happened at the end of their 12-hour shifts was something to cherish, Zausmer said. At 7 p.m. each evening, members of the public would erupt in a cheer for health professionals.

"You'd hear it coming from all over – this din of clapping and cheering and horns – and that was pretty neat," Zausmer said.

When Gutierrez and Zausmer were not working their 12-hour shifts, they'd walk New York City streets, stunned by how few people were out.

"The city was absolutely empty," Zausmer said. "To think you could look down 34th Street for blocks and blocks and blocks and only see street cars was eerie."

She was also heartened to see the number of multiracial and multicultural hospital workers and those serving in the military.

"We met a dentist and also a major from Iraq, and another dentist who emigrated from Ghana," Zausmer said. "It just shows you what a diverse and wonderful country we have, and how people chip in even if they came from somewhere else."

On Saturday, FEMA announced the last eight patients at the Javits Center were discharged or transferred, bringing the total number of patients cared for there to 1,093. A New York State official said the center would be kept on standby in case the extra beds are needed in the fall for a second wave of virus cases.

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