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When coronavirus hit NYC, Dr. Yvette Calderon and her team did 'whatever it took'

"No one was trained to deal with surges of patients every single day," said the head of emergency medicine for one of NYC's largest hospitals. "It took a village."
Image: Dr. Yvette Calderon.
Dr. Yvette Calderon.Daiana Ruiz / for NBC News

"I’m so sorry, you can’t come in."

Dr. Yvette Calderon recalls delivering that devastating news to the family of a coronavirus patient who was being admitted to her New York City hospital at the height of the outbreak. Sensing how scared and upset everyone was, Calderon promised the family that her staff would take care of the patient.

Later that day, Calderon saw a nurse by the patient’s side. Although the nurse was supposed to be on break, she had stayed with the patient and they were saying the rosary together. “I was blown away,” Calderon said. “She did this so the patient would not feel like she was all alone.”

As chair of emergency medicine at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital,Calderon, 57, was on the front lines of the nation's first big coronavirus outbreak. The virus hit New York City in March, and cases skyrocketed in April.

“This was unprecedented,” Calderon said. “I have never seen this much death in such a short period of time.”

Even for Calderon, recognized for her decades of experience and research, the early days of the outbreak were frightening. The limited information about the virus and its transmission, combined with the sheer number of patients, was unlike anything anyone had ever experienced.

“The emergency room is all about crisis. We are trained to see death, and we are trained to deal with surges of patients,” Calderon said. “But no one was trained to deal with surges of patients every single day. This surge was for weeks. It was almost like a military battlefield.”

While COVID-19 is highly contagious, Calderon noted that her doctors, nurses and staff weren’t afraid of getting the virus. “If I get it, so be it, this is my calling,” she said about how she and her colleagues felt. “For ourselves, what we worried about the most was possibly transmitting the virus to our own families.”

Calderon, who is of Puerto Rican descent, was born and raised in New York City and graduated from Brown University and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. According to a 2019 report by the Association of American Medical Colleges, she is among the estimated 21,000 Latina physicians in the U.S. If that sounds like a high number, it’s not. By contrast, the U.S. Latino population is over 60 million.

As Calderon and her staff worked through the coronavirus pandemic, she suffered a loss of her own. In April, her father, who was in a nursing facility, died from COVID-19.

“It was devastating for my brother and me,” Calderon said. “I pride myself in my work, my calling, in taking care of others and being there for others — and I could not be there for my dad.” Her father was 90, one of the famed “Borinqueneers,” Puerto Rican soldiers who served in the Korean War.

After her father died, Calderon made it her mission to ensure that her COVID-19 patients — especially the gravely ill — would at least be able to hear the voice of someone they knew. Her team began using iPads to call patients’ families and holding the devices up to the patients’ ears so families could be together virtually.

“That was really important to me,” Calderon said. “Because I was not able to talk to my dad right before he died, it made me feel like I could do that for others.”

Since May, the number of daily coronavirus cases in New York City has steadily dropped. But the pandemic has seared itself into Calderon’s memory. “I can tell you now, many times this year I have cried for and with families. The grief was overwhelming."

Doctors and nurses, she explained, are used to being able to save lives and intervene in times of trauma. “With coronavirus, so often we could not, and that was hard for all us to accept.”

For Calderon, the pandemic has served as a reminder of the disparities in health care across different populations, especially among Hispanics and Blacks, something she has worked to tackle for decades through her work treating patients with HIV and hepatitis C. But it's also reminded her of the strength and resilience of her colleagues.

On the days that Calderon could get home early enough at the height of the outbreak, she joined the New Yorkers who took to their balconies and windows to applaud health care workers and first responders.

“It meant a lot to me, but I wasn’t clapping for myself. I’m not a hero. I was clapping for my staff, my faculty, my teams who never gave up,” said Calderon. “We did whatever we could, whatever it took. It takes a village — and we were the most amazing village ever.”

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