Photo: Alexei Hay
the group portrait

Working Wave After Wave at Elmhurst

Approaching 365 days in a hard-pressed hospital.

Photo: Alexei Hay

First frame, from left: Anayirz Baez, senior planning and scheduling analyst; Dr. Milana Zaurova, emergency department; Andrea Robertson, RN, ambulatory care; Gina Abenante, medical-surgical social-work supervisor; Arnold Antonio, respiratory therapist; Jeseena Jose, RN, NICU; Dr. Kosuke “Ken” Iwaki, internal medicine. Second frame, from left: Loreta Naska, patient-care associate; Yeeun “Grace” Jang, RN, ambulatory care; Sister Lilia Njoku, chaplain; Mercy Mathew, respiratory therapist; Hanna Yakubova, NP, ambulatory care; Iryna Stefankiv, RN, emergency department; Abel Guerrero, hospital police officer.

Andrea Robertson has swabbed thousands of noses since she was first assigned to oversee the COVID-19 testing tent outside Elmhurst Hospital one year ago. The head nurse of ambulatory care began testing patients last March, and she hasn’t stopped since — 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., often seven days a week. In those early days, Robertson was afraid of passing the strange new virus to her family, including her elderly parents. “I remember a patient said to me, ‘I can’t go back home because I’m positive and I have nowhere to go.’ And that hit me really hard because I know what it is like,” she says. But with lines of patients snaking around the block, there was no time for self-doubt. “I had to roll up my sleeves, get my anxiety levels together, and be there for my patients.”

Elmhurst Hospital in central Queens was the epicenter of the epicenter when the pandemic crashed over New York last spring. Horrifying news stories brought attention to the hospital’s “apocalyptic” conditions and staggering loss of life that ultimately spurred an increase in patient transfers to lighten the load on the beleaguered institution. But when the cameras largely moved on, hospital staff, several of whom are pictured here, were left to confront wave after wave — through the slow ebb of summer and the reemerging swells of fall and winter.

While cases have slowed, staff still haven’t had time to fully process the emotional toll of the past year. When visitors were shut out of the hospital, social-work supervisor Gina Abenante found herself becoming a surrogate family member to her sick patients. “I’ve worked there for 20 years. I’ve had a lot of training, but you cannot train for something like that,” she says. Before the hospital secured iPads and tablets, Abenante gave patients’ family members her personal cell number so they could call her directly; to this day, some still contact her this way. But amid all the tragedy, what sticks with her from this experience is the way the staff came together. “You got more appreciation for everyone — the people cleaning up, the transport people — how everybody in there mattered and the importance of every role.”

With so many COVID patients requiring supplemental oxygen, respiratory therapist Arnold Antonio recalls how his peers in different disciplines stepped up — doctors and nurses assisting with intubations and monitoring patients, his administrative supervisor wheeling heavy oxygen tanks on dollies through the emergency department. “Everyone came together without really putting a label on what they do,” he reflects. “If I needed help, I’d have somebody right beside me, and I wouldn’t even know who it was.”

Because Robertson’s tent was right outside the emergency department, she found herself collaborating with a whole new set of Elmhurst employees for the first time — like head nurse Iryna Stefankiv. “You meet lifelong friends,” she says. Robertson’s tent is still testing hundreds of people a day, and after months spent educating her patients about social distancing and mask-wearing, part of her job now involves countering the vaccine skepticism that she’s noticed in the low-income minority communities Elmhurst serves. “At the beginning, we didn’t know what was happening,” she says, but one year after the devastating onset of the pandemic, when people come to her confused and afraid, she knows exactly what to tell them.

*This article appears in the March 1, 2021, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Working Wave After Wave at Elmhurst Hospital