An attentive prison nurse, a devoted radiologist: US health workers who died from Covid-19 in March

An attentive prison nurse, a devoted radiologist: US health workers who died from Covid-19 in March

We are documenting the lives of every US medical worker who have died helping patients during the pandemic. These are those who died from Covid-19 in March

America’s healthcare workers are dying. From doctors to hospital cleaners and from nursing home aides to paramedics, those most at risk of contracting the coronavirus have already helped save thousands of lives.

KHN

Hospitals are overwhelmed, workers lack protective equipment and some staff suffer from underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to this pernicious virus.

Health authorities in the US have no consistent way of tallying the deaths of healthcare workers. As of early June the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 383 deaths among health workers – but acknowledges that tally is an undercount.

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 US who die from Covid-19, and to understand why so many are falling victim to the pandemic.

These are some of the frontline health workers who died in March. You can also read about health workers who died in April and May.

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David Wolin Photograph: Helena Cawley

David Wolin, 74
Brooklyn radiologist was ‘kind, simple, loving and devoted’

Occupation: Radiologist
Place of work: The Brooklyn hospital center in New York
Date of death: 30 March 2020

By 10am on Sundays, David Wolin and his wife, Susan, would have completed one-quarter of the New York Times crossword puzzle.

When the grandchildren arrived, Wolin greeted them with bagels, lox, whitefish “and the best scrambled eggs in the entire world”, said Helena Cawley, his daughter.

Wolin was “kind, simple, loving and devoted”. A radiologist specializing in mammography, he was “committed to learning everything he could”, Cawley said. “The latest medical journal was always on his nightstand.”

He and Susan would skip off to their home upstate, where they might take out a rowboat, a bottle of chardonnay and a brick of Roquefort cheese under the stars. “All they needed was each other,” Cawley said.

In late March, Wolin complained of “bad colds” but deferred testing. Brooklyn hospital was overwhelmed with Covid-19. A hospital spokesperson could not be reached for comment.

On 30 March, when Cawley couldn’t reach her father, she called the doorman of his building. He reluctantly shared the news: Wolin had died overnight.

Susan was hospitalized that day with Covid-19 symptoms and died weeks later. “We’re grateful in a way,” Cawley said, “because we don’t know how they could have lived without each other.”

– Eli Cahan

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Hazel Mijares Photograph: Family of Hazel Mijares

Hazel Mijares, 66
A nurse and lay religious leader, she died the month she was set to retire

Occupation: Licensed practical nurse
Place of work: Amsterdam Nursing Home in New York City
Date of death: 30 March 2020

Faith was central to Hazel Mijares’ life. 

A lay leader at her Methodist church in New Jersey, Mijares taught Bible study classes, sang in the choir, and sometimes gave the sermon.

She was drawn to church as a child in the Philippines, her sister, Hannilette Huelgas said. One of nine children, Mijares always led the family prayers.

Mijares immigrated to the United States as a young nurse and was planning to retire in March.

She worked through March 13, burned up accrued paid time off, then stopped back a week later for her last day. As she said her goodbyes, she noticed a little cough.

After she learned that one of her patients had died of Covid-19, Mijares tried several times to get tested. Amid delays, her health deteriorated. When Huelgas called on 30 March, Mijares didn’t answer. She had died waiting for her test results, which the family learned were positive.

As of May 24, the nursing home had recorded 45 presumed-Covid-19 deaths. Officials there did not respond to requests for comment, but a phone recording updated May 21 said they had “completed COVID-19 testing of residents” and had “begun testing of all staff.”

Mijares “had wanted to go to Jerusalem, to the Philippines,” Huelgas said. “And she didn’t even get to enjoy retirement.”

— Maureen O’Hagan

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Jesus Manuel Zambrano Photograph: The Zambrano family

Jesus Manuel Zambrano, 54
Dominican pediatrician realized his dream to practice medicine in US

Occupation: Pediatrician
Place of work: Private practice in Freeport, New York; attending physician at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital
Date of death: 30 March 2020

Jesus Manuel Zambrano studied medicine in his native Dominican Republic and immigrated to New York in the 1990s.

He hustled, working in fast food and as a school bus driver between studies, said his wife, Sandra. He completed his residency in 2010.

In the meantime, they had two children: Jesus Manuel Jr, 22, and Angelyne Ofelia, 18. Jesus Manuel Jr, who uses a wheelchair, never veered far from his father during family outings to restaurants and parks, and Holy Week vacations.

Zambrano’s bond with his son informed his care for his patients. “There was not a single day we met and talked when we didn’t talk about his son,” said Dr Magda Mendez, a former colleague.

Zambrano spent days in private practice, Sandra said, and in the evenings treated others at the hospital, which saw Covid-19 cases.

In early March, he felt ill. He took the next day off – a rare occurrence, Sandra said. He was taken to the hospital where he worked, where he died after a week and a half of care.

In becoming a physician in the United States, Zambrano had realized his lifelong dream. He wished the same for his family.

“He had a lot of plans for his children, a lot of dreams,” Sandra said.

— Carmen Heredia Rodriguez

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Alredo Pabatao Photograph: Sheryl Pabatao

Alfredo Pabatao, 68
He tried to reassure his family until the end

Occupation: Orderly
Place of work: Hackensack Meridian Health Palisades medical center in North Bergen, New Jersey
Date of death: 26 March 2020

After 44 years of marriage, Alfredo Pabatao still bought his wife, Susana, flowers.

“They were that type of couple that you rarely see nowadays,” their youngest daughter, Sheryl Pabatao, 30, said. “They set such a high standard for us, their kids – that may be the reason why I’m still single.” She said her father was a patient man who could fix just about anything.

The Pabataos came from Quezon City, just outside Manila, in the Philippines. Alfredo worked at a car dealership, and Sheryl said she and her siblings grew up comfortably.

But the couple wanted more for their five children, and immigrated to the United States in October 2011. “The first year that we were here, was really, really tough,” Sheryl remembered. Her oldest two siblings, already adults by the time the Pabataos’ immigration application cleared, had to stay behind.

Alfredo found a job as an orderly at a hospital in New Jersey, where he worked for nearly two decades. In mid-March, he told his family he had transported a patient with signs of Covid-19; he fell ill days later. (In a statement, his employer wrote, “We have policies and procedures in place to protect our team members and patients that are all in accordance with CDC guidelines.”)

Sheryl said the family’s last conversation with her father was via FaceTime, with him on his hospital bed. Connected to oxygen, he insisted he wasn’t gravely ill. He made jokes and even demonstrated yoga poses to reassure his wife and children.

– Danielle Renwick

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Kevin Graiani Photograph: Dennis Graiani

Kevin Graiani, 56
Police officer turned nurse practitioner was pursuing a doctorate

Occupation: Family nurse practitioner
Place of work: Rockland medical group in Garnerville, New York
Date of death: 30 March 2020

Kevin Graiani had always wanted to work in healthcare, according to Dennis Graiani, one of his three sons. But his mother told him he needed a pension, so he became a cop.

Graiani, who grew up in the Bronx, served five years on the New York City housing authority police force, then 15 on a suburban police force in Spring Valley, New York. He was a “brilliant officer”, said Lt Jack Bosworth of Spring Valley.

Known for his dry sense of humor, Graiani often rattled off quotes from movies. He played bagpipes for the Rockland county Police Emerald Society. When he retired from police work, he began nursing school and became a nurse practitioner in 2018.

Graiani, who worked at a private practice, became sick on 10 March and was later diagnosed with Covid-19, Dennis said.

He loved learning and was set to finish classes this summer for his doctorate of nursing practice, said Lynne Weissman, his professor and program director at Dominican College.

He was an “extremely bright student” with a 3.7 GPA, Weissman said.

She has nominated him for a posthumous degree.

– MB

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Tomas Pattugalan Photograph: Giancarlo Pattugalan

Tomas Pattugalan, 70
His children wanted him to retire, but he wasn’t ready to slow down

Occupation: Internal medicine physician
Place of work: Private practice in Jamaica, Queens, New York
Date of death: 29 March 2020

Tomas Pattugalan’s kids had been encouraging him to retire. But even after practicing medicine for 45 years, he wasn’t ready to slow down.

“He loved his patients. He loved to work. He loved to help others,” said Giancarlo Pattugalan, his son. “He had an enormous capacity to give of himself.”

A father of three, Pattugalan grew up in the Philippines and emigrated to the US in the 1970s. He was a devout Catholic who attended Mass weekly and a “karaoke master”, Giancarlo said.

In early March, Pattugalan began testing patients for Covid-19. His medical history, including a family history of strokes and high blood pressure, heightened his own risk. So after the tests of two patients returned positive, he got tested himself. On 24 March, he learned he had the coronavirus.

“He made a joke and said Prince Charles had tested [positive] too, and he was sharing royalty,” Giancarlo said. “He was making light of it, not trying to get any of us worried.”

Pattugalan had a cough. Then came wheezing. His oxygen levels dropped. He tried hydroxychloroquine, an experimental treatment touted by Donald Trump that has yielded mixed results. Nothing helped.

On 29 March, at his family’s urging, Pattugalan agreed to seek hospital care. He died that day.

– SL

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Barbara Finch Photograph: Leigh Ann Lewis

Barbara Finch, 63
A beloved small-town nurse and ardent baseball fan

Occupation: Licensed practical nurse
Place of work: Southern Virginia Regional medical center in Emporia, Virginia
Date of death: 29 March 2020

When Barbara Finch got excited, she’d scrunch her hands into fists and wave them around like a kid at Christmas. She did it when the Atlanta Braves scored, or while watching her grandkids play baseball.

Finch, who had four children, spent her 37-year nursing career in her hospital’s emergency department.

Leigh Ann Lewis, her daughter, knew her mother was well-liked. When Lewis worked as an EMT, patients she transported away from the hospital would rave that Finch had been sweet and compassionate.

Finch fell ill on 17 March and died in an ICU 12 days later. As a hearse carried her casket to the graveyard, Lewis said, people in their tight-knit community filed out at driveways, churches and stores, holding signs that read: “We love you”, “Praying for you”, “Hugs”. Hospital employees released balloons to the sky.

“It seemed like, in our area, she knew everybody – either she worked with them, or they were a patient of hers at some point,” Lewis said. “It was a very, very large outpour of love and comfort and solidarity.”

– MB

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Theresa Lococo Photograph: Lisa Lococo

Theresa Lococo, 68
Caring nurse ‘always put others first’

Occupation: Pediatric nurse
Place of work: Kings county hospital in Brooklyn, New York
Date of death: 27 March 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’s 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 from work, her daughter said.

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

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

– SL

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Israel Tolentino Photograph: Courtesy of Vito Cicchetti

Israel Tolentino Jr, 33
He was an unflappable first responder with an ever-ready smile

Occupation: Emergency medical technician and firefighter
Places of work: Saint Clare’s Health and the Passaic fire department, Passaic, New Jersey
Date of death: 31 March 2020

When Israel Tolentino Jr arrived for his EMT shift one morning in March, he seemed fine. Then he got a headache, and then a fever. 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 continued to take 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.

Tolentino and his partner worked brutal, 12-hour shifts during the pandemic. They were dispatched to one emergency after another, each typically lasting under an hour but requiring nearly as 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.

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

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

– MA

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James House Photograph: Courtesy of Catrisha House-Phelp

James House, 40
An eager student, he wanted to become a physician assistant

Occupation: Registered nurse
Place of work: Omni Continuing Care in Detroit, Michigan
Date of death: 31 March 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 31 March, 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.

DR

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Kim King-Smith Photograph: The family of Kim King-Smith

Kim King-Smith, 53
King-Smith was driven by a desire to help others until the end

Occupation: Electrocardiogram technician
Place of work: University hospital in Newark, New Jersey
Date of death: 31 March 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 29 March, 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.

– DR

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Marion ‘Curtis’ Hunt Photograph: The family of Curtis Hunt

Marion ‘Curtis’ Hunt, 57
A social worker with panache who helped people struggling with addiction

Occupation: Social worker
Place of work: Cornell Scott-Hill health center and New Reach in New Haven, Connecticut
Date of death: 23 March 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 Daena Murphy, his supervisor at Cornell Scott-Hill health center. “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 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 23 March, one week after developing flu-like symptoms, said his brother John Mann Jr.

MB

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Araceli Buendia Ilagan Photograph: The family of Araceli Buendia Il

Araceli Buendia Ilagan, 63
An exacting but loving aunt, she was a mentor until the end

Occupation: Intensive care unit nurse
Place of work: Jackson Memorial hospital in Miami, Florida
Date of death: 27 March 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 US 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.

– DR

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Alvin Simmons Photograph: Kaiser Health News

Alvin Simmons, 54
After some struggles, Simmons turned his life around

Occupation: Environmental service assistant
Place of work: Rochester general hospital in Rochester, New York
Date of death: 17 March 2020

Alvin Simmons started working as a custodian at Rochester general hospital, in New York state, only 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, hard-working 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. (In an email, a hospital spokesperson said it 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” and that he was the hospital’s first diagnosed case of Covid-19.)

On 11 March, he visited the emergency room with flu-like symptoms, Wilcox said. Over the next few days, his breathing became more labored and he began to cough up blood. He was rushed to the hospital on 13 March, where he subsequently received a Covid-19 diagnosis. Simmons died on 17 March.

– DR

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Jeff Baumbach Photograph: Handout from the famiily

Jeff Baumbach, 57
Unable to gather to mourn, Baumbach’s friends drove by his house shining flashlights in his honor

Occupation: Nurse
Place of work: St Joseph’s medical center in Stockton, California
Date of death: 31 March 2020

Jeff Baumbach knew the risks of coronavirus, but as a nurse for 28 years he was also accustomed to being around infectious disease. “He’d worked in the ICU. He was exposed to so many things, and we never got anything,” said his wife and fellow nurse, Karen. Baumbach even sent a dry text to Karen: “I love wearing a mask every day.”

In March, Baumbach was notified that a co-worker had Covid-19. He soon began to develop symptoms; he and Karen tested positive. Karen came down with body aches and congestion. Jeff had a fever and cough.

Their home, once the site of countless family brunches and barbecues, where Jeff and his children solved huge jigsaw puzzles, was now sealed off from the outside world. Their daughter Kaila, 26, moved out as a precaution, and she didn’t communicate with her dad when he was sick. “I thought he was invincible,” Kaila said.

On 26 March, Karen brought Baumbach to the emergency room, where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. He chose to recuperate at home. On 31 March, he collapsed in the bathroom. “It went downhill really fast,” said Karen, who took him to the hospital. Unable to enter the building, she stayed in her car and received updates by phone. Kaila waited in another car nearby.

Baumbach was connected to a ventilator, but it had little effect. Eventually, Karen was allowed to don full protective gear and say goodbye in person. She returned home alone, still in quarantine.

The next evening, Kaila asked dozens of friends and family members to drive along her parents’ street and shine their phone flashlights. Filled with grief and gratitude, Karen cried as she peered out of an upstairs window at the glittering lines of cars crawling in both directions past her home.

– CJ

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Debbie Accad Photograph: The family of Debbie Accad

Debbie Accad, 72
Accad was the ‘pillar’ of her family back in the Philippines and spent decades caring for US veterans

Occupation: Clinical nursing coordinator
Place of work: Detroit VA medical center in Detroit, Michigan
Date of death: 30 March 2020

Nurse Divina “Debbie” Accad cared for military veterans for over 25 years and was just a few weeks from retiring when the virus struck.

On 16 March, Accad, 72, a clinical nursing coordinator at the Detroit VA medical center, told relatives that she felt ill. Four days later, she was hospitalized with pneumonia. She told her family that she had tested positive for Covid-19, and asked them to pray for her. The family felt helpless watching their beloved matriarch suffer from afar, said her niece, April Amada, who lives in the Philippines.

Accad was born in Alimodian, a Philippine town known for its sweet bananas. The eldest of four children, she graduated from Central Philippine University with a nursing degree in 1969.

Two years later, she moved to Chicago through a “fly now, pay later” program, joining tens of thousands of Filipino nurses who have migrated to the United States. She later relocated to Taylor, Michigan, where she married William Accad, with whom she raised four children.

Accad was the “pillar of the family”, Amada said. She sent money home to relatives, and put Amada’s mother through nursing school. A visit from Accad – known to relatives as Tita Debbie – meant unli-kainan, or “unlimited food”. Accad served up big American breakfasts and spicy kielbasa with cabbage.

Mark, Accad’s son, said his mother had diabetes, a risk factor for Covid-19 complications. He believes his mother was exposed by infected co-workers, though that has not been confirmed. The Department of Veterans Affairs is facing serious shortages in personal protective equipment for workers, according to internal memos obtained by the Wall Street Journal, though the VA has told reporters that it was taking proper precautions.

Accad “died doing what she loved most – caring for people”, said Mark.

– MB