Inside Two N.Y.C. Morgues Overwhelmed With Coronavirus
Coronavirus forced New York City's hospital morgues to recruit an army of temporary workers. Two college students chronicled the grim realities and the glints of humanity they witnessed.
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“This is not where I expected my senior year to be. I thought I would be hanging out with friends, studying for finals, maybe going out binge drinking or something. I did not think I would be walking in a refrigerated trailer full of nearly a hundred bodies.” “This is truck No. 1, and this truck is a nightmare. We try our best to make sure that no bodies go in there. Unfortunately, we’re often at a last resort.” The surge of coronavirus in New York City that pushed hospitals to the brink overwhelmed the system for tending to the dead. At the pandemic’s peak, a New Yorker was dying almost every two minutes. The mounting deaths inundated funeral homes, and left hospitals across the city without enough supplies, space or manpower. To staff the morgues, hospitals brought in temp workers, volunteers, even college students. “I was very excited to help, but at the same time I was very nervous because I have never handled bodies before.” An amateur photographer, Devin Speak served in the Coast Guard before enrolling at N.Y.U. Mariel Sander is a senior at Columbia University who loves to cook, draw and write. “All the other techs had been there, at most, like a week. This is a job that pretty much none of us would choose to do in a normal situation.” Two students, both eager to help medical responders, were offered mortuary jobs at two different hospitals in New York City, which they asked that we not identify. Both found the experience to be grim, sometimes horrific. But each discovered that the people they were working alongside did everything they could to protect the humanity of those who are lost. “Nothing about it is ideal. These people are dying alone and we’re, in a weird way, the stand-in for relatives.” "It’s not just about preservation of life. It’s about respect for life, and I think that includes the body and the dead as well.” Each briefly dropped into a realm where civilians rarely venture, chronicling in photographs and journal entries the part of the pandemic that we hear about all the time, but never see. “These were the first couple photos that I took. These are my colleagues here, and this is right in front of the morgue. We’re getting ready to go in.” “On the first day, it’s really overwhelming. I get there. I meet my supervisor, and she’s this really sweet woman. But on the door, there’s this piece of paper and it says like, R.I.P. to whoever, and I find out it was one of their colleagues in the management office who passed away the previous week from Covid. That was immediately kind of a reality check.” “This is like as soon as you walked into the main morgue, it’s gurney to gurney to gurney. You cannot walk in because the entire walk-in fridge is packed. You can see, it’s just Tetris in there.” “So the normal capacity of the morgue is like 13 to 15 people. When I got there, it was 88.” “We have around 200 now. I have photos of us having to literally get up on gurneys and walk across gurneys because they’re just wall to wall.” “It has gotten to the point, sometimes, too, where we have to fit two bodies on one stretcher, and that’s when the dropping bodies thing happened my first day. I was working with a tech who had started the week before. We were moving a body, and he kept telling me to do things I didn’t know how to do yet. And the body slipped and fell, face first, on the ground. There was just like this awful sound, and the body bag broke, and it started leaking fluid. And I was just like, ‘Oh, my God. What’s happening?’ I’m not qualified for this.” “It’s just a logistical nightmare. I think everyone’s trying to do their best. I wouldn’t blame anyone, really.” “Our supervisor came up and made it super clear this is not the norm. This is not what should be happening. For the most part, people really do treat the bodies with a lot of respect. But I guess it definitely made clear how rushed everything has been.” “That narrow hallway back there is where we line gurneys up. We would transfer as many bodies as we could out of the morgue to make more space. This is the loading dock, right to the left. We’re transferring the bodies into the trucks. This is the most problematic of the trucks. It has no shelving, unlike the other two trucks. The air conditioning in this truck is a joke, and this truck has always smelled.” “I feel like I’m still at a point where I’m adjusting, and this all seems very strange to me. And I haven’t quite figured out how I think about a body, versus a person, versus a patient.” “I actually remember this one. This body is wrapped up in a sheet. The feet there are just taped up in a garbage bag. We ran out of body bags, at least the durable ones. Half the bags are torn. The other half just aren’t in bags. These bodies are just wrapped in sheets. They did get an order a couple days ago. Pretty much spent the entire day transferring bodies.” “The surge of deaths has kind of affected not just the hospital. Funeral homes are really overwhelmed. We do have bodies that have been there for weeks. And then, of course, you have new patients dying every day. In most of the pickups, the people are in isolation. There’s not a lot of interaction with other people seeing the body. But we had this really particularly rough pickup because there were two patients in the room. Apparently, this was the second person he’d seen die in the bed next to him. We came in and he was like, ‘I’m really relieved to see you guys.’ I was like, that’s a weird reaction to a bunch of people from the morgue coming up. But it was because he was like, I just didn’t want to be next to this dead body. And he told us he was just, ‘I’m just really scared.’” The backlog across New York grew so dire that city officials eventually set up emergency mass morgues to take over for the hospitals and their temporary workers. “You see these numbers. They’re like, 600 people died today, and it just is a number. You’re just like, ‘Oh, 600. Well, that’s better than yesterday.’ I think for a lot of people in my generation, the death aspect doesn’t necessarily feel as real to us. Now, it’s very real for me.” “It certainly gave me a different relationship to all those numbers, all those figures. We definitely take care of them. We rest like a hand on their hand. We all talk to them. When we load them off to the funeral homes, I just tell them, it’s going to be all right. It’s all good now. You don’t have to worry about anything.”