In his 30-plus-year career as a doctor, Robert Meyer had never witnessed anything like COVID-19. To process the trauma, he took notes and spoke with his cousin, a published author, about working on the front lines during a pandemic.
A year and a half later those conversations turned into a book; “Every Minute is a Day” is set to be released on Aug. 3.
“I’m proud of what I accomplished,” Meyer told the Bronx Times. “We did it right. We honored people respectfully.”
Meyer, 55, an emergency room doctor at Jack. D. Weiler Montefiore, worked at the now defunct St. Vincent’s Hospital in lower Manhattan during the AIDS epidemic, but had never seen the devastation, death and sickness he did over the past year.
He added that during the AIDS crisis, he never once felt scared. But that all changed with COVID-19.
“Spring of 2020 I was scared,” he said. “It wasn’t a matter of if I was going to get COVID-19, it was a matter of when.”
Fortunately, Meyer never contracted the coronavirus, but some of his colleagues did. He first realized the magnitude of the pandemic when half of his emergency room was set up for COVID-19 patients.
From late February through May it was nonstop madness, he said. The ER had about 70 COVID patients a day and trucks were setup as temporary morgues outside the hospital as deaths hit an unprecedented peak overwhelming city morgues.
In fact, trucks were parked right near the spot where Meyer parked his car, so everyday he would look over and wonder how many people would end up there.
“It was March and April, and it was just insane volume and sick volume,” he said. “People were very sick and dying very fast.”
According to Meyer, on a normal day — pre-pandemic — one person may be intubated, but at the peak of COVID, dozens were intubated daily.
“It was incredible to see somebody oxygen starved when they came in and two hours later, they were dead,” he said.
In March 2020, Koeppel, who lives in Maine, reached out to Meyer to see how he was doing as the pandemic was beginning to wreak havoc in New York — the epicenter of the virus at that time. Meyer told him things were horrible.
Koeppel, with a writer’s mindset, asked Meyer to begin taking notes about everything that he does or sees in the emergency room. After a couple weeks of chatting on the phone, Koeppel realized they had the potential for a book.
“Dan immediately came to New York and dissected everything that was Montefiore and the Bronx,” Meyer said.
Koeppel stayed for several months and immersed himself in the community. However, during that time he got bladder cancer and Meyer was left to do a lot of the writing on his own.
So, for a few months, Meyer felt like he was back in middle school. Fortunately, Koeppel was able to beat cancer and help finish the book. “I don’t mind writing, but what Dan can do, it’s so humbling,” Meyer said.
“Every Minute is a Day” dives into the struggles the doctors, nurses and patients faced and how they coped with everything.
While Meyer described writing the book as cathartic, it was also quite emotional.
No one at the hospital had ever witnessed so much death, he said. The worst part was the medical staff was often the last contact patients had before they died; during that time visitors were not allowed in the hospital.
“That was the hardest part,” Meyer said. “We had to deal with people dying alone.”
So, Meyer began the routine of writing down the names of the patients that succumb to the virus each day, and the next morning he would call their families and speak with them about their loved ones last moments. “What was so heartwarming is the family members I would speak to on the phone would comfort me,” he said.
In his decades-long career, Meyer never did anything like that or spend 45 minutes each day signing death certificates.
One patient that stood out to Meyer, he refers to as “baseball dad” in his book. The man came into the hospital overweight with asthma and immediately asked to be put on a ventilator. Since Meyer is a Yankee fan and the man’s son was trying out for his college baseball team, the two quickly bonded over America’s pastime.
“I looked at him in the eyes and promised him a ventilator,” Meyer said. “Even though I shouldn’t have made that promise, I would have done anything to keep him alive.”
The patient survived COVID, and once discharged he sent Meyer a picture of his son on the baseball diamond.
Another key aspect covered in the book was how the medical staff handled the pandemic. They worked long hours, didn’t take breaks and barely had time to eat. No one knew how to cope or combat the deadly virus, but they did the best they could, Meyer said.
They had weekly meetings with Montefiore’s Medical Director Deborah White who made sure to check in on everybody.
“It was incredible to hear everybody say the same thing: ‘I go home, I cry, I strip down in the garage, I don’t want to get my family sick and I’m scared,’” Meyer said.
While he never knew what to expect when he agreed with Koeppel to write the book, Meyer is now glad he did.
“COVID is almost a backdrop about a book of people coming together under times of duress,” Meyer said. “The spirit, compassion and the best of people came out during the worst time of our lifetime, and we rose to the occasion and did what we had to do. I’m really proud of everyone that’s in this book and that worked during that time.”
Reach Jason Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org or (718) 260-4598. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter @bxtimes and Facebook @bxtimes.