The winter growth of COVID-19 cases – finally – began to slow. Intensive care units across California were beginning to recover from unprecedented levels of illness and death. The hospital morgues were no longer so full.
Dr. Courtney Martin was lying on her bed in her Redlands home, eyes wide open. The children were buried safely down the hall. Her husband, Scott, slept quietly next to her. But sleep was far from over for the 39-year-old obstetrician.
She reached for her iPhone in the dark. Opened the Notes app on a blank screen. And started writing.
I want to write about Carl. It’s a long essay, but that’s because I love to write. Maybe it’s my therapy, and maybe because Carl deserves attention. There is a Carl in every hospital.
Martin is the Head of Maternity Services at Loma Linda University Medical Center, a skilled physician and surgeon, a dynamic appearance, 6 feet 1 inch tall, shiny blonde hair, ready smile.
Carl is an absolutely invisible man. He largely works in the dispatch department of the medical center, moving patients from hospital rooms to radiology for MRIs and CT scans. He delivers samples to laboratories, transports supplies and medicines, transports blood and plasma.
He has been doing the same thing for the last 16 years. He is tall and slender, has curly red hair and freckles on his nose. He wears a teal scrub, the uniform of the dispatch department. He is 45 years old. He doesn’t like attention.
However, Martin wants the world to know who Carl is and what he does. She calls him “this healthcare hero.”
Because of the pandemic, Carl became the person who removed the bodies from the rooms, then took them to the morgue. Maybe it was work before the pandemic – I’m not sure. And, on the surface, it doesn’t sound that bad. But in a pandemic, Karl became a body collector.
The medical center where Carl spends his days has an adult hospital with 343 beds and a 371 children’s hospital. More than 3,500 babies are born there every year. It is the only Level I trauma center in the Inland Empire.
Under normal circumstances, the seventh floor of an adult hospital is home to the cardiac intensive care unit, where the sickest heart patients are treated. The morgue is an elevator ride away. Hospital officials would not say which floor it is on “for security reasons”.
During the winter boom, the cardiac ICU was converted into a COVID ICU to handle the new crush of horrifyingly ill men and women. The morgue was not big enough to kill all the epidemics, so the hospital brought refrigerated trucks and parked them on the sprawling university campus about a mile away.
Carl has worked in the medical center since the age of 29. Before that he had a factory job in Tucson. These days he lives in San Bernardino, describing himself in one sentence: “I’m just a regular guy who loves life, I love people.”
Carl is a Christian, a deeply private man of very few words. He does not want his last name to be used or his picture taken. He was ready to answer questions about himself, his work and the impact of the pandemic – but only via email.
Q: Before the pandemic, what was a normal work day like for you?
A: “Similar to now but with many fewer dead patients.”
Q: How did the pandemic change your job?
A: “Many, many more deaths, many more broken hearts, tears and pain.”
Q: How did the pandemic affect you?
A: “Saddened to see so much grief due to the death of loved ones.”
Q: What satisfaction do you get from your work?
A: “I just like to be a helper and serve others wherever I am.”
Q: How did you personally cope with the difficult changes caused by the pandemic?
A: “By being respectful and understanding with patients, with hospital staff, and with families, whether visiting or passing loved ones. Also taking care of everyone whether in pain or in happiness, that is, rejoice with them.” Those who are happy and identify themselves with the sad.
The coronavirus also changed Martin’s job in a way he never imagined.
During a surge in the summer of 2020, she gave birth to the hospital’s first two children whose mothers had advanced COVID-19. Women give birth in medically induced comas, attached to ventilators, touch and go.
They lived, and so did their premature daughters, Emiliana and Jade.
Martin said he enjoys working with pregnant women, bringing new life to the world. But during the winter of the pandemic, when the state’s healthcare system was too strained to nearly crumble, she began regularly helping care for Loma Linda’s sickest COVID patients.
He does not remember exactly how many COVID patients he treated who did not survive those dark winter weeks. She would see them during her morning visits, and after a while, “They would die. Or we’ll withdraw the care. Probably at least like 10. It was a lot. It was utter bullshit.”
That’s when her paths repeatedly crossed with Carl—when the hospital was in such dire condition that obstetricians were treating men and body collectors in the intensive care unit were a regular presence.
Whenever I saw Carl, he had a lightness, always with a smile, soft eyes with small wrinkles and crows’ feet, and a humble attitude. They had a way of getting the unit to slip without interruption with their morgue transport operations while everyone else was running around…
Phones were ringing, pagers were closing, doors were opening and closing, IV pumps were beeping, ventilators were oscillating, and then Carl, with a respectful smile, quietly and skillfully metal the body. key on the gurney, and then covering them with a black paint. tarpaulin
In one of the worst days of winter – when thousands of Californians were coming down with the coronavirus and hundreds dying every day – four patients in Loma Linda’s COVID intensive care unit died at nearly the same time.
To take one of the bodies to the morgue, Carl rotated a metal gurney on the seventh floor. It was noon, and the circular hallway around the nursing station was full of people talking.
He could not stand the crowd of doctors and nurses, respiratory techs and medical students. Mann and Gurney were pinned down, Martin wrote by equipment, walls, and the medical team.
So he waited. He then performed what Martin called “a miraculous maneuver”, in which a heavy metal gurn was slipped into the dead patient’s room.
Martin had come from the children’s hospital maternity ward on the seventh floor to check on her two struggling patients.
As he looked from afar, he realized that no one had looked up. Or said hello to Carl. Or he was taken to move on with his sad job. It was a “terrible” scene, she wrote, and gave her “a sense of loneliness for Carl and the others transporting the dead.”
Didn’t they really see him, or was it too painful to admit and say hello to a sign that we haven’t saved yet another father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, or friend?
In that few hours, I’m pretty sure that Carl collected all the dead and carried them to the morgue, which was at this time on refrigerated semi-trucks. I can’t imagine how he stacked them in the truck, or hauled them off the metal bed.
The day was filled with great sadness by the unit’s staff, nurses, residents, doctors – but what about the dispatch? What about Carl?
Martin does not remember exactly what had kept her from sleeping on a February night when she lay in the dark and was writing about Carl.
Maybe, she said, she would have finally seen so much death and suffering that she could no longer divide the pain.
Maybe, She Said, She Was Still Angry About Former President Trump campaign trail lie Which revolves around social media, like an October rally in Michigan. “Our doctors get more money if someone dies of COVID,” he said at the time. “you know that right?”
Or maybe she was haunted by a winter night, standing outside a hospital room on the seventh-floor COVID ICU, frozen, wondering if she could possibly save the people inside.
They took away two women and premature babies. Both women were on ventilators. Both were failing fast together. Both the kids were struggling.
“I will always remember hearing the fetal heartbeat on all the monitors outside the door.” She knocks on the table, raps fast. “And just like, ‘Oh, my god, I’m feeling stressed.’ The paralyzing moment.
She gave birth to a baby boy by emergency caesarean section. The mother, eventually, recovered from the virus. The other woman went home planning to recover, become pregnant and give birth to her child at her local hospital in Corona.
“These are the things that keep me going,” she said.
About a week before that sleepless night, Martin met Carl in the labor and delivery unit. It was quiet, and he was taking a patient to have an ultrasound.
She asked him how he was doing, now that the epidemic was starting to subside. She wanted to know how he managed the tough winter weeks, realizing that he would come to work and spend most of his time carrying the dead.
She wanted to thank him.
When he answered her questions, she wrote, “I almost lost it.”
He said he kept walking through it all because he felt like, when all the dust settled, the monitors turned off, the family left, the sheet was pulled over the face of a former life, that someone needed to make sure that They still got care.
One needed to make sure that they were placed snugly on the metal gurney, the arms were positioned comfortably, the legs and feet were covered.
Someone needed to take them to the morgue with dignity and care. Someone needs to escort them, go with them.
Someone needed to be their protector.