By Alix Strauss
May 15, 2020, The New York Times
Yaakov Shereshevsky has been saying the Viduy, a Jewish prayer, for terminal Covid patients.
“No one is meant to see so much death that quickly,” said Yaakov Shereshevsky, an I.C.U. nurse at N.Y.U. Langone Health, where the coronavirus outbreak has taken a heavy toll. For a while, he said, eight floors — 34 beds on each floor — were devoted to Covid-19 patients, and they were at capacity. “At one point, we had 20- and 30-year-olds dying,” he said. “It was a horrible, brutal, helpless feeling. It felt like there was no light. Now it’s getting better.”
Mr. Shereshevsky, 34, who is an Orthodox Jew, has also started to give last rites to Jewish patients, since rabbis are not allowed in hospital rooms. He lives in Georgetown, Brooklyn, with his wife Leah, 33, an occupational therapist, and their four children; Elisheva, 9, Rivka, 7, Esther, 4, and Yitzi, 3. In his spare time he volunteers as an E.M.S. and E.M.T. worker.
UP AND OUT My alarm is set for 6 a.m., but I wake up a few moments before, which is great because I don’t wake my wife. I get dressed and go downstairs to pray for 15 minutes. As an Orthodox Jew, I pray three times day. I gather my bag with medical items and laptop, and I’m out the door.
THE PREP I drive to work. I stop at Bagel Boss, and get an everything bagel with cream cheese or egg and cheese, and a French vanilla coffee. Then I drive to the hospital. Their parking lots have been free to staffers because they want us to be safe and not take public transportation. I’m there an hour early. I sit down in the break room to do some work. I’m studying to be a nurse practitioner. I go to the assignment board. I take my temperature to make sure I don’t have a fever. If you do, you can’t work. For the next 13 hours I will wash my hands and change gloves about 50 to 60 times.
THE PATIENTS I get reports on how my patients are doing. These days I have three; normal is one or two. I assess each patient — check their many tubes and IV and ventilator, take their pulse, check their breathing. I talk to them to let them know what I’m doing whether they’re conscious or not. Most are sedated.
THE MEDS At 8:30 reports are given. I spend the next hour getting everyone’s medication together. Usually the patient’s doors are open, but because of the virus they’ve remained closed. That’s been eerie. We don’t hear them talking to us, there’s no family because they’re not allowed to be here. At 9:30 doctors check-in. They stop at each room and the team talks about the patient’s plan for the day.
AWKWARD ALIENS At 10 I administer the first round of meds. The constant changing of the PPE outfit is exhausting. It’s hot and sweaty. The gown is plastic so the body can’t breathe. The mask and face shield prevent air from going anywhere. I started wearing lenses because my glasses fogged up so quickly. The mask really hurts because it has to be tight and the lines don’t disappear from your face until four or five hours later. I feel bad for the patients because we must look like aliens.
TEAMWORK AND TEETH From 12:30 to 2 the proning teams come to flip patients from being on their backs to their stomachs so they can breathe better and avoid skin deterioration. This takes 30 minutes per patient. Part of the team involved is an anesthesiologist and respiratory therapist. We also brush their teeth routinely to remove bacteria.
‘THIS IS CRAZY’ A second assessment happens before lunch, which I take from 3:30 to 4:30. My wife packs me a salad and yogurt, or a peanut-butter sandwich. Every day she writes me a note, “I love you, be safe.” That gives me a moment to smile. My body is starving for air. If the weather is nice, I’ll eat in N.Y.U.’s outdoor court. If not, I’ll go to the break room, get a second cup of coffee, eat my lunch, and talk to other nurses. We all say, “This is crazy” for 30 minutes.
“For the next 13 hours I will wash my hands and change gloves about 50 to 60 times,” Mr. Shereshevsky said about his shift.
PRAYERS Because rabbis can’t go into the patients’ rooms, the only people able to give last rites is us. I’m not trained to do this for the Jewish community, but for the past five or six weeks, I’ve been saying the Viduy in Hebrew, then in English. It’s the realization and acceptance that the end is here; it is time to say goodbye and ask forgiveness from our creator. They have family who need to know this is done, and the patients can’t say it for themselves. I’m not an emotional person, but it’s a rough thing to get through. It hurts. If their death is imminent, I wait with them. Then I pull it together in the elevator and return to my patients.
FINAL PUSH From 6:30 to 7:30 I check everyone and brush their teeth again. Then I prepare all of the medication they will need for the night shift. From 7:30 to 8, I race to finish documenting everything that happened during my shift.
RETRO ROCK THERAPY I’m in the car by 9:15. I call my wife to tell her I’m OK. We talk as I drive home. She tells me who made trouble, who went to bed on time and what everyone ate for dinner. Then I listen to classic rock — Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel, and try not to think about the day.
HOME I get home at 10:15. There’s a laundry bag at the front door. I undress. Spray my watch and shoes with Clorox, walk upstairs, go into the shower and I scrape off the Covid. We sit at the kitchen table and talk about our day — I finally let mine out, and she listens. She’s sympathetic and validating. I usually eat healthy but during this time I’ve been turning to comfort food. Sometimes I work three or four days in a row, so I will not have seen the children, which feels terrible. At night they leave out their drawings on the dining room table for me to see.
COMFORTS At 11 we get into bed and watch our guilty pleasure, “Friends.” It’s bottom-of-the-totem-pole humor, but I love that I don’t have to think. We hold hands and laugh. By 11:30 we turn the lights out. Sometimes I fall asleep quickly; sometimes it’s hard because I can’t get the day’s images to stop. Once you’ve seen something, you can’t unsee it.