Don't call me a hero
Don't call Danny Sayegh a hero. “I personally don’t like the word,” he says. “It's not that I'm offended by it or anything. It’s just – for me – this is something I went to school for, I have degrees in, I'm educated on – it's something I just do.”
What he “just” does is care for the sickest COVID-19 patients on ventilators in the ICU at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.
“One of my friends the other day said, ‘Well, what do you want me to say? You're a champ?’ I said, ‘Trooper. I wanted to go in and help out and that's it. I'm a trooper.’
A trained respiratory therapist (we’re talking “ventilator management, airway management, the breathing tube,” he explains), he left medicine to work in real estate, with his partner Jeffrey Dyksterhouse at Compass. But when all non-essential businesses went remote, and the real estate industry went kind of quiet, he knew he had to go back to his roots.
“I've always kept in touch with my old friends at Columbia Presbyterian,” he says. “And, I know it's going to sound really cheesy, but I had this internal guilt that I wasn’t back in there.
"I’d be looking out my windows and be like, 'This neighborhood is quiet, what are you talking about?' They said, "Nope. It's a war zone in the hospitals. Believe the media. It is real.’
“So I knew I was going to walk into something that was not normal to see. But I was like, ‘You know what? It doesn't matter. We're just going to move forward and go and be with my people, with my old colleagues.’ And I have to say it's quite nice that, before, these were people who reported to me and now I'm on that front line with them, side by side.”
But, before he could go to war, he had to have some important conversations with Jeff. “They were difficult conversations,” he says. “Because, obviously, I don't want to risk bringing something home. We had to talk about his health, about my health …”
"I didn't realize what I was going to feel, and how lonely it is with both of us in here, but not sharing our bedroom."
They've developed a “decontamination” ritual once he gets home from the hospital.
“We're fortunate enough that we have two bedrooms and two bathrooms,” he says. “The foyer is a hot zone now. When I walk in, my bags, sneakers, jacket, all that stuff comes off and we Lysol spray everything. Essentially, I de-robe down to nothing, and everything goes in garbage bags.
“Jeff comes with gloves. He grabs my personal phone, my work phone, my water bottle, things like that, which he then washes. Then I go straight to the guest bathroom, which is now my bathroom. And, for the time being, I’m sleeping in the guest bedroom.”
It’ll be that way for at least another seven weeks (five more weeks in the ICU and two in quarantine). And, says Danny, one of the hardest things he’s had to get used to is the loneliness.
“I didn't realize what I was going to feel, and how lonely it is with both of us here, but not sharing our bedroom. It was bit of a mind fuck in the beginning. We've gotten better with it but, essentially, there's no affection. God forbid if he did get sick – the guilt I’d feel.”
Ground rules may have been established at home, but he wasn’t prepared for what he found at hospital. “Let me tell you, day one, I was just floored. I'm very policy driven – when I was a manager, there was no equipment on floors, everything had to be prepped, ready to go, everything in order. But all rules were out the window. It was basically survival mode.
“I couldn't believe the amount of people who were in there, coughing and sneezing up a storm, and everyone was just running around. There was no order – and this is New York Presbyterian Colombia, where there was always order.
“So that first day was a real shocker for me. But it felt so normal just to jump in and re-organize everything.”
There are some changes he's had to get used to. He can no longer run into a room when someone’s in cardiac arrest; first, he must get all his PPE on, which can take up to four minutes … a critical amount of time when someone’s life hangs in the balance.
"What we're finding is that patients are prolonged on the ventilators because family members are not physically there to see what's happening with their loved ones."
And whereas he used to be responsible for seven or eight ventilator patients at a time, now he’s caring for 15. "I'm still performing my respiratory therapy duties, but they are in crisis mode,” he says.
And he misses the interaction with patients’ families. “That was one of my favorite parts – teaching and educating them and showing them what's happening with their loved ones. None of that's happening now. And what we're finding is that patients are prolonged on the ventilators because family members are not physically there to see what's happening with their loved ones to make any of those next-of-kin decisions.
“If I dropped off my loved one, who was cooking me dinner the night before going into the hospital, but then all of a sudden they're on the ventilator and they're not doing well – the mindset of the child or family member is, ‘How can that possibly be?’
“One doctor said to me, ‘Danny, if you don't mind, I taped up my phone to your ventilator because it's the perfect angle. The family wants to FaceTime with their mother for two hours to make a decision.’
“And I almost lost it, knowing that's how they have to make a decision now. That – the emotions behind that – is probably what keeps me up at night. We never had to deal with that before. It was much easier to do in person, because then you can process it.”
But he's seeing people recover too, going back on to the ward and getting out of danger. “Last Monday, all of a sudden we hear loud music coming through all the speakers – it's the Black Eyed Peas song, 'I Gotta Feeling'. They’re playing it every time a COVID patient is extubated off the vent or discharged.
“We were all laughing. It brought everyone smiles, and I think that's something that is definitely needed. Throughout the week I kept hearing it.”
He’s had days when he's felt energized. He’s had days when he’s felt beat up. His constant is Jeff, at home, meeting him at the door wearing gloves and brandishing the Lysol. To decompress, he’ll do a puzzle, go for a run, walk the dog, cook.
“And, since I started at the hospital, I’ve stopped watching the news. I don't want to hear any more about it. I don't want to hear about the numbers. I just want to know that things are starting to open up, because it's time. That's my personal opinion. It's time.”
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