Our Frontline Friend: Valerie Kabul, a Physician Assistant in NY, is in the fight against SARS CoV2, then and now.

When it was announced that New York had its first COVID patient, it suddenly became real. We knew hardly anything about this new virus, except that it affected the respiratory system. What a scary thing it is to not know what we’re dealing with. As a medicine physician assistant, I was bracing for the worst. With a densely populated city like New York, it spread like wildfire. Gov. Cuomo did his best to provide daily updates, words of comfort/encouragement but there was a palpable fear in the air. The city put in lock-down, schools closed, people scrambling to stock up on food/essentials while the stock market crashed. In the hospital, workers hoped they didn’t bring the virus home to their families. It was like something out of a suspense movie.

It didn’t take too long before every other patient that came through the Mount Sinai Morningside ER was COVID positive. The number of patients on our medical service had more than doubled our usual census. We needed some serious backup. Fortunately, physicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioners from local outpatient practices, specialties like neurosurgery, GI, orthopedics, etc., and around the country stepped up to help us take care of these patients. Even with all this help, I had to work an extra 12-hour shift every week. Gown, gloves, N95s, surgical mask, face shield at the ready. It was exhausting, gowning up and down, day in and day out but I was glad to do it. Aside from the physical demands of the job, there were emotional challenges.

I saw healthy individuals and those with chronic conditions, developing serious respiratory symptoms that led to needing oxygen, then intubation, then ICU-level care and sometimes death. COVID did not discriminate. Families were unable to see their loved ones in the hospital – so we would call them everyday to update their status and when we could, set up Zoom calls so they can at least see them or perhaps say their goodbyes. It was a struggle to remain mentally strong around so much sadness and frustration.

During this time, I was going through my own personal losses. My boyfriend’s stepfather, Manuel Nunez, a wonderful and kind man, had contracted COVID and passed away in less than a week. It was heartbreaking that we couldn’t be there to see him or do a proper ceremony. About 3 weeks after that, my beloved fur baby, Bruce was having non-stop seizures. After two trips to the animal hospital, I had to make the decision to end his suffering. One of the most difficult things I had to do. What’s worse, I couldn’t have my family there due to the pandemic. Luckily, I had met travel NP Marguerite Vardman the day before, who had come to help our medicine service and just happens to be a grief counselor. She saved me from this crippling emotional pain during this already stressful workload and I am forever grateful. Thanks to her, I was able to function at work and grieve in my own way. 

 If there was ever a bright side to working the COVID pandemic, it would be witnessing how people came together in a time of crisis to support each other, whether it’s through managing the patients to providing comfort to families to feeding the hospital staff to police, firefighters, and city residents’ ovation for essential workers every night at 7pm, etc. It’s been more than a year since the pandemic began, and we’re still here. This past year has been a testament to our compassion, tenacity, and resilience in the face of crisis.