NEW YORK - Mariel Sander thought she would spend her last month at Columbia University attending parties, taking modern dance classes, and taking a road trip to visit five national parks over spring break.
Instead, he transported corpses from hospital beds to refrigerated trucks.
The coronavirus has killed more than 20,000 people in New York City, making hospital morgues and funeral homes work hard.. To deal with this onslaught, hospitals recruited more than 100 temporary workers to handle the bodies, according to the city's health department.
Sander was one of the people hired. She had been idle at her home in Oldwick, New Jersey, restless after her Manhattan university closed and eager to help in the pandemic. He wrote to various hospitals in the city until he got a job of $ 25 an hour.
Sander, 21, spoke to The New York Times during the month he worked in the morgue of a Brooklyn hospital. Her story offers an unusual glimpse into an activity usually hidden from public view.
Sander lived through moments of nightmare: ripped body bags, amputated limbs, mysterious liquids accumulated on sheets.
However, Sander claimed that he has also developed a new respect for the rituals of death. The morgue team taught him to treat each body with care, as a way to respect family members who were unable to enter the hospital to say goodbye to their loved ones.
The experience drained her physically and emotionally. When transporting the bodies, he would sometimes look at their birth years, written on the body bags, to see how close in age they were to their parents.
"This experience taught me more about empathy than anything else.", said.
Sander, who was not authorized to speak to the media about her work, shared her experiences on condition that the name of the hospital was not published. Many details were corroborated by another employee who also had no authorization to make statements to the media and who spoke on condition of anonymity. A hospital spokeswoman declined to comment.
April 14: Welcome to the morgue
Sander observes the hospital morgue for the first time.
Hidden in the basement, the room can normally hold around a dozen corpses. But today, almost 90 bodies need storage. Two refrigerated trucks are parked outside the hospital as temporary morgues.
Sander learns to wear a mouthpiece N95, then a surgical mask and face shield. A hairnet, medical uniform, two pairs of gloves, and two lab coats are also placed.
Inside the morgue, Sander feels overwhelmed and lost. Amputated limbs, placentas, and other specimens are stored there for research. See some bags containing baby corpses.
The morgue phone rings. It is time to transport your first body.
The nurses put the body in a white bag. Morgue workers check the corpse's bracelet and write the patient's name on the outside of the bag, to help funeral directors collect the correct body.
Sander trained as a technician in medical emergencies — she took the course while considering studying medicine — so she knows how to handle bodies much larger than she is. They must be lifted with the force of the legs, not using force with the back.
Sander incorrectly grabs a body bag, and tears it. However, he learns to roll the delicate material into a compact bundle to hold it with his fist.
April 16: ‘I'm very scared’
Sander is alone in one of the trucks that serve as a morgue. Everything is completely dark. The only thing that lights up the place is the hand lamp it carries.
Suddenly Sander sees a man's face inside an open bag. Her heart stops. She speaks aloud to calm herself as she feels her gobbled up by the dozens of bodies around her on wooden shelves.
During a collection, Sander arrives in a hospital room with another morgue technician. There, they find an elderly patient sitting on a bed, visibly relieved to see them.. The man is next to a bed with the curtains fully drawn around a corpse.
"That's the second person who's been in that bed since I've been here," he says. "I am very afraid".
Sander is devastated. She wants to comfort the man, but does not know how. The two chat briefly and at the end he wishes him a speedy recovery.
The encounter is puzzling because the roommates of deceased patients are usually unconscious. Morgue workers usually enter a room and only hear inhalations and exhalations from respirators, plus beeps from monitors.
April 21: A reality download
Sander goes to collect a body and is face to face with the patient's son, who is a hospital employee. He helps the morgue technicians move his father's body to a stretcher. Sander is surprised by the firmness of his hands.
Seeing the child is a shock to reality: each body he carries belongs to someone. Sander has tried to block the painful parts of his work and has focused on logistical aspects, such as running a stretcher through a narrow entrance.
Sander feels a surge of apprehension every time the morgue phone rings. His least favorite part of the job is walking into a hospital room and finding a chaotic scene of tangled monitor cables, food scraps, and used scrubs of nurses. It is a snapshot of the patient's final moments.
April 23: The job takes its toll
Sander has not been sleeping well. He keeps thinking about the silhouette of a belly under the body bag. The movement of the skin of a lifeless body.
Your lower back hurts. Lifting a body off the lower shelf of the truck is exhausting. When you push a stretcher down curved hallways and steep ramps, it sometimes collides with the wall, causing a stab in your back.
Sander carries a slim old woman, whose body is still warm. The feeling reminds him of hugging his grandmother, who died earlier in the year.
Sander, who is studying a major in English Philology and Neuroscience, is now sure she wants to attend medical school to better understand how the human body works.
April 28: Six bodies at noon
Progress comes intermittently. Some days, there is not one deceased during his shift. On other days, he has already collected up to six bodies at noon.
A supervisor complains about a funeral director who showed up the day before with four bodies in the back of a truck, intending to pick up a body from the hospital and place it on top of the other bodies. His colleagues declined, claiming that the stacking could cause the bodies to start releasing fluids, which would be disrespectful to the families of the four patients below.
May 1st: Yellow Flowers
Before the pandemic, around 40 to 50 people died in a typical month at this hospital. In April, the death toll was seven times higher.
A relative of a Sander co-worker has died in hospital. The team clears a space for the body, makes up her face and opens the bag for her family to see. Relatives place yellow flowers, a symbol of hope, on the body.
Sander cannot hide his feelings. "It could easily have been one of my parents or my sister," he says.
When he talks to his friends on the phone, Sander struggles to explain that a good day at work is one in which only two or three people died.
Your priorities before the pandemic (getting good grades, standing out in extracurricular activities) feel alien to your current reality. Her classes, which are now online and graded with a simple “pass / fail”, end this week.
May 6: Camaraderie in the morgue
The humor inside the hospital begins to be more cheerful. Sander sees empty beds in the emergency room.
With a little more free time, the team plays music in the morgue with an old iPod. They teach each other dances.
May 8: Celebration
A truck from the medical examiner's office picks up 19 bodies to take them to the 39th Street pier in Brooklyn, a place established as a collection point for funeral directors.
Morgue workers celebrate the fact that these bodies - some of which had not been claimed by anyone - now have a destination, that they are no longer forgotten.
The day before, when one of the refrigerated trucks was finally closed, someone put on the song "Graduation (Friends Forever)" by Vitamin C. Sander joked, "This is probably going to be a better celebration than my true graduation."
May 15: Last day
It's Sander's last day at work. Only nine bodies remain in the morgue. The hospital already only has a refrigerator truck.
Sander is tested for the virus and spends the weekend walking the Columbia University campus with his friends, all wearing mouth masks. During those walks, a student feels again.
May 18: Heading home
The prospect of a virtual graduation ceremony saddens her. "Isn't it weird to miss an experience you've never really had?" He says.
The hospital calls her to give her good news. Its results are negative. Her mother drives into town to pick her up.
The results came just in time. Now Sander will be able to spend his graduation, scheduled for Tuesday, at home with his family.
* Copyright: 2020 The New York Times Company