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Honoring Our Local Heroes

This week is National EMS week. In 1974, President Gerald Ford authorized EMS Week to celebrate EMS practitioners and the important work they do in our nation’s communities. This year, when the world is being ravaged by COVID-19 and its devastation, it is particularly significant for us to honor the medical personnel and front line heroes of our community. Ari Profesorske, Yaakov Shereshevsky, and AJ Rothstein are all nurses in local hospitals who have fought on the front lines during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ari and Yaakov are also members of Hatzolah and AJ has been an EMT for 20+ years. Ari Hirsch of the Jewish Vues had the honor to sit down with these three modern day heroes. 

FAST FACTS: 

YAAKOV SHERESHEVSKY 

Family: Wife: Leah, Children: Elisheva 9, Rivka 7, Esther 4, Yitzi 3 

Currently lives in: Georgetown, Brooklyn 

Hatzolah Member of: Mill Basin 

Member of Hatzolah since: 2008 

Yeshiva(s) growing up: Chaim Berlin, Darchei Torah (Far Rockaway) 

Davens at: Congregation Beit Hillel of Flatlands 

Nurse in: NYU 

Hospital Title: Senior Staff Nurse 

Years as nurse: 4

 

First of all, as a fellow Jew & a New Yorker I want to especially thank you for everything you’ve been doing for New York & Klal Yisrael the last couple of months. Thank you! Kol Yisrael Arevin Ze La’zeh. We are all our brother’s keepers. 

Please tell everyone what you’ve been up to since the corona virus started? 

Hatzalah: when there is a call, answer and head to address. Park, put on N95 mask and splash guard, gown and gloves. Survey the scene, assess the patient and make a decision if further resources are required. If needed, transport to hospital by ambulance. Nurse: I typically work in the cardiothoracic ICU, but for 2 months it has been a COVID ICU unit. Shift starts at 8am until 830pm. The number of patients have been much less lately, and we are slowly getting back into the normal swing of things. For our corona patients, they are each in sealed rooms with glass doors, so we can always see them and ensure safety. Fully gowned up for entry into each room, make an assessment, check the IVs, the ventilators, tubes and wires to make sure they are all working as they should be. Talk to the patients so they know who we are and what we are doing, and give all meds needed. 

What is a typical day like for you these days? 

As things are getting better, heart surgeries have been taking place again, so we are seeing more of our typical patients who have just had open heart surgery. They are generally critical and require a lot of support, but we are very used to this population. 

At what point was it the worst? 

The weeks around Pesach, end of March to beginning of April. It is simply not possible to put this into words…everything we did seemed like it didn’t matter. We tried so hard to save as many as we could. But we are not in charge. The One above makes the final decision, and we are only sheluchim. Sometimes every father has to say no, but it is difficult for us to be there when so many of our brothers and sisters were in such a situation. 

How do you balance being a member of Hatzolah & being a nurse? 

My wife gets all of the credit for this. I do it because I have to, I don’t think any member sees it as a choice. If someone needs help, we answer. It is that simple. But my wife is the one who makes the sacrifice and runs the household while I am out, and I would never be able to do this without her blessing. 

Do you go home at night? Do you see your family on a regular basis? 

I do go home after work, but my wife leaves a laundry bag behind the door. Upon entry, my clothing goes straight into the laundry, watch and shoes get Lysol and I run into the shower. 

What is the most challenging part of the job these days? 

Seeing pain on the faces of my patients, and hearing it in the voices of the family members who I speak to. It is gut-wrenching. 

How much longer do you think corona is going to go on for? 

I don’t think any of us really knows. 

Last week there was a whole write up on you in the New York Times. How did that happen? How did they get to you? 

Several weeks ago I wrote about how I felt as a healthcare worker, which spread farther than I would have thought. A connection was made by someone who read it and a writer for the NYT and they called and asked if I would do an interview. I have to mention that they were extremely respectful and sensitive throughout the process. 

How many times have you helped people say Viduy over the last 2 months? 

Too many. There was a point when I was being asked to say it multiple times in a 12.5 hour shift, sometimes even by nonJewish staff on other floors. They knew that other Jews worked there and were trying so hard to be respectful and honor the wishes of our people. 

A very hot topic over the last 2 months has been about patients having a visitor or visitors in the hospital. What’s your take on that? 

This was certainly hard on the patients, as well as the family member who wanted to see them. It is so hard to be alone in a hospital for even a day, and many of the patients we were seeing were there for several weeks. Shabbos, yomtov…nobody to talk to. And many family members were obviously feeling the stress and wanted to be there for the patients. That being said, I think the hospitals made an extremely tough call, but they made the right one. Letting people in would have increased exposure many times over, which would have put the patients themselves, the family member who visited, and the healthcare workers at greater risk than they were already facing. This was a decision that was made between a rock and a hard place, but I believe this ultimately saved lives. 

Do you think that you are a hero? 

I think I am the result of parenting, mechanchim and friends who have all helped me get to where I am. V’ahavta L’reach Kamocha. If a yid needs a hand, we give them ours. This is what a Jew does. As my rebbe R’ Michoel Levy told me, we are children of Avraham Avinu, the father of chessed. This is nature of our people. 

As a parent & a Hatzolah member do you think camps should be open this summer? 

I wish I could answer that. As a parent, I want to see my kids to be kids. My children have been desperate to play with their friends and see them again. As a Hatzalah member, we have seen what happened when people did not follow the quarantine. I hope we have a better answer soon. 

Is there anything else that you would like to mention that we did not discuss? 

Just the overwhelming majority of people, from Hatzalah members, pharmacy, lab technicians, doctors, PAs, NPs, respiratory therapists and nurses who went so far beyond the call of duty. Many of us will have images etched forever in our memories of people in pain, but also of the efforts that were made to alleviate the suffering in our communities. The chessed being done is astounding. People have been delivering food to hospital staff, Jewish and not Jewish every day. Shomrim has been delivering oxygen equipment to people at home. Schools have been making food packages for pickup. Hashem must be so proud of His children. I have always been proud of my colleagues, but never more so than today. 

 

FAST FACTS: 

ARI PROFESORSKE 

Family: Wonderful Wife and children 5, 3, and 11 months old. 

Currently lives in: Brooklyn 

Hatzolah Member of: Flatbush 

Member of Hatzolah since: 2009 

Yeshiva(s) growing up: RJJ, YTT (Staten Island), Torah Ore (Israel), Mir Yerushalayim(Israel), BMG (Lakewood) 

Davens at: Khal Bnei Torah of Flatbush 

Nurse at: Maimonides Medical Center 

Title: BSN RN, EMT-P 

Years as nurse: 2.5

 

F irst of all, as a fellow Jew & a New Yorker I want to especially thank you for everything you’ve been doing for New York & Klal Yisrael the last couple of months. Please tell everyone what you’ve been up to since the corona virus started? In the weeks before Pesach, when COVID was at its peak in NYC, my wife asked me why I was so quiet. Both of us are nurses on the front lines and we are each other’s sounding boards and support systems. Yet, I felt like I was burrowed inside of myself and had trouble verbalizing all my thoughts and feelings. I feared that the second I started opening up a little it would all come cascading out, like a dam finally released. I cannot unsee what I’ve seen. I feel the loneliness and fear of my patients when they are alert and oriented and are told they need get a certain treatment or support. They have no one. I work in one of the largest Emergency Rooms in the heart of Brooklyn, one of the most affected by COVID-19. I see that no one is safe. Initial reports from across the pond, in Europe and China, told us that only the elderly were affected. That’s a complete falsehood. As the days and weeks wear on, my patients are getting younger. I am on overdrive. My thoughts and feelings are locked away, occasionally leaking out when I am at home and hug my family, just a little too tightly. I live day to day, hour to hour.

 

What is a typical day like for you these days? 

These days, the hospital has calmed down. Little flowers dress all the front windows of the hospital in celebration of every discharged COVID patient. Thank G-d, much of the hospitals in NYC now have a low census. Unfortunately, many have died but many have gotten discharged. People are scared to go to the hospital, but actually if you have to go, now is a good time. You can be in and out in no time, unless an admission is needed. Also, hospitals have separated Covid patients and non Covid patients.

 

At what point was it the worst? 

We were busiest during the weeks leading up to Pesach and over Pesach. Before Pesach, when most people were running around shopping and cleaning, I didn’t have a second to breathe. I was staying late at the hospital and when I was not on shift, I was answering Hatzalah call after call. Sometimes in the morning, on my way home from a long and draining night shift, I would hear a call go out and I would say to myself, “It’s on my way home; let me help one more person, and then I’ll sleep.” But one call would turn into two as I was already on the ambulance. Then another, then another. It would be hours before I would make it home. Sending text message after text message to reassure my wife that I didn’t fall asleep at the wheel. My coworkers would laugh because I wouldn’t even make it home to change into my regular clothes. I kept reappearing at the emergency room in the same scrubs I left with hours earlier with yet a new patient in tow. I would wheel my patient in and wouldn’t even know where to put them. Beds, beds everywhere. Barely any room to walk. Doctors scurrying around looked like astronauts in their hazmat suits. I could barely recognize the nurses, despite working with them every day, because of all the equipment they had to wear. I’d look over my shoulder feeling guilty for leaving my patient there, all alone. But another call would go out over my radio. I had to keep going. When I finally did make it home, I would just answer yes or no to everything. I could not speak. It was too draining. I would get a few hours of sleep, get dressed, grab my prepared supper, and hug my family goodbye. Take a deep breath and do it all over again. Pesach, which is supposed to be a holiday surrounded by family, was spent running around answering Hatzolah calls. It was frightening hearing ambulances whirring all night long. It sounded like a response to a mass casualty. Pesach night is when you leave your doors unlocked because you know you have a special shmira from Hashem…I’d like to believe that that is exactly what I had: Shmira. Hashem helped me answer calls faster than I ever thought possible. Shmira, that, when I thought I could not answer one more from being so drained, a new wave of adrenalin hit me and I answered “Just one more call.” Shmira over my shalom bayis, that I could not help my wife, as much as I should have, prepare for our first-time home for Pesach. (I even missed bedikas chometz because the hospital needed additional staff). Yet my wife cried with me and held us all together. The second days of Pesach is when I felt my mental health lag. I felt bleak. When I was home all I could do was sleep. I had experienced several calls that ended in the worst way possible. And as a paramedic, I felt personally responsible for the demise of several people. My people. I did end up having to take several days off from Hatzolah. The personal responsibility was too much for me to bear. But, like all wounds, they heal. And in this time of crisis, I had to heal fast. Therapy groups for Hatzolah and Nurses began to crop up. Zoom sessions with the Orthodox Jewish Nurses Association was especially helpful for a lot of nurses feeling the same way. My story is just one snippet from one Hatzolah member. There are many who worked tirelessly on overdrive. And even the older members who might not have responded to calls, helped out behind the scenes with medical advice or arranging coverage at tough times. Our service members had to restock our supply rooms around the clock and provided sterilization of each ambulance at the end of the day. Of course our coordinators led us fearlessly, ensuring all members had the supplies and support they needed. They were always on call and available to all members 24/7. They also arranged small gifts delivered to our homes in appreciation of families sharing their husbands/fathers during this time. 

 

How do you balance being a member of Hatzolah & being a nurse? 

In general, a full time nurse working in-patient works 3- twelve hour days a week and once a month works a 4th shift. This leaves part of my week open to take on other endeavors. Working night shift also allows me to volunteer with Hatzolah during daytime hours when many other members are at work. 

 

Do you go home at night? Do you see your family on a regular basis? 

I actually am not home at nights, but I am working nights! I typically start my shift at 7pm and work until 7:30 am the next morning. After work, I would daven shachris at a local minyan (pre-Covid) and get home in time to do breakfast with my kids. Although this schedule is physically draining, it does allow me to be home in the mornings when my kids wake up. I walk my son to yeshiva and then settle in to go to sleep. On days that I am between shifts, my awesome wife picks up my kids from school. I usually get up in the afternoon when the kids get home, leaving me some time to hang out and do dinner with them. On days when I am off that night, I only nap for two hours or so, and then rough it through the day half asleep, so that I have a normal sleep later that night. My wife is also a nurse inpatient and works two nights a week. We alternate nights, so that I am home the nights when she is at work. It’s a challenging schedule, but bh it has been working for us. 

 

What is the most challenging part of the job these days? 

We have patients coming into the hospital these days with non Covid illnesses, the “regular illnesses,” which were somehow forgotten about over the past two months. Whether it’s strokes, heart attacks, pancreatitis, sepsis, CHF, or copd. One of the biggest challenges is getting the patient to go to the hospital for their acute condition. Every patient is afraid (and rightfully so) to go to the hospital. Once the patient finally goes to the hospital, the patient does not want to be admitted and stay in the hospital. In fact, sometimes patients wait too long and end up sicker than they need to be. 

 

How much longer do you think Corona is going to go on for? 

Corona is our new reality. The current strains of the virus are still so new to all of us and we still don’t know much about it. Hopefully life will get back to normal soon, but we will still have to take precautions by wearing masks, gloves and doing our social distancing. The medical staff, however, is on pins and needles waiting for the next wave. We know it’s coming, it’s only a matter of time. Once things start to open up, the infection rates will go up again. But we are ready for it. We will not be caught unaware this time and we will emerge stronger. 

 

As a parent & a Hatzolah member do you think camps should be open this summer? 

I am not an epidemiologist and I don’t feel qualified to answer this question. However, quarantine has my kids jumping out of their skin and as a parent, I would love to have them out of the house again. 

 

How many times have you helped people say Viduy over the last 2 months? 

Too many that I have lost count. This doesn’t mean that these people passed away. I try to do Viduy with all critical patients. The way I see it, viduy can only help the situation. I remember that my Rav once said that a segulah to long life is to buy a burial plot because it reminds us that life is short and we need to learn much Torah and do many mitvos. I feel like the Viduy helps a patient do teshuva and realize that everything is really from Hahsem. Hopefully one’s teshuva will be accepted and will help him/her make it through their illness. If Hashem’s master plan was different, then at least the patient is able to come to the next world free of any impurities. 

 

Any crazy stories that you can share with our readers about something that happened over the last two months in the hospital? 

There have been many crazy stories over the past two months. I am nervous to share specifics due to HIPPA violations. There have been so many positive stories that have also come to light which for some reason don’t get circulated. There were many individuals successfully resuscitated and many patients that were on ventilators that got better and were able to go home. In the past, a hospital would wait till a patient was fully recovered before discharging them. Now, they are sending people home as quickly as possible on oxygen to finish their recovery. The amount of chesed seen is unbelievable. Supper came in from a new grocery store or restaurant every night. People donated surgical protective equipment when we were limited or gave us home made ones. One little girl spent all of her saved up allowance to purchase a meal for the whole emergency department.  

 

A very hot topic over the last two months has been about patients having a visitor or visitors in the hospital. What’s your take on that? 

A really nice side to being a nurse as well as a Hatzolah member is the follow up. When the ban on visitors started, and no one was able to visit my patients that I brought in, I would keep a list of names and phone numbers of people to check up on. Neighbors would constantly drop off food and supplies at my house for me to bring to their loved ones at the hospital. Eventually the names on my list (and all the other Jewish nurses’ lists) got too long and a WhatsApp group was started. Members of the group were hospital nurses from almost every in-patient floor. All we had to do was post someone’s name, date of birth, and the family contact information and within minutes someone would respond, “I’m on break in 10 minutes, I’ll go check on them.” Or “I work the next floor over and I’ll be there soon.” As a collective group we would video chat on our own phones with the patients and their families. It is always a struggle to hold the camera straight for them as I try to hold back my tears. For many, it was their last time seeing their loved ones. With the help of community askanim members and some dedicated nurses, we started regular rotations to check on specific patients whose family members requested it. We would help assign private duty nurses for any individuals who desired. The kindness that poured out of everyone was outstanding. We were able to recruit non-Jewish nurses as private duty nurses over Pesach and Shabbos.

 

Do you consider yourself a hero? Do I feel like a hero? 

No. Do I feel like I’ve done enough? No. There is always more to do. More people to help. We are a lot stronger than we think we are. When I look around at all the numerous people who came out of the woodwork to be involved bitzhorchei tzibbor, I feel inspired to keep going. If they can do it, why not me? I do what I can, for as many as I can. I hope and pray every day that it will be enough.

 

Is there anything else that you would like to mention that we did not discuss? 

I have learned to be more fluid and to roll with the punches. I rotate to the pediatric section of the emergency department quite frequently. My role there has changed as we began to accept older patients in their 20’s and 30’s, even some in their 40’s. Special needs patients come straight to the pediatric department, despite their age. For adults, no visitors are allowed at all. The rules are different in peds. One parent can stay at the bedside, which they have extended to families of special needs patients. As a healthcare provider I have never given my personal phone number out to family members of patients- until now. I don’t mind when they reach out asking me how their husband, wife, mother, father are doing. During this time, several organizations came through with donations of medical equipment. Shomrim acquired oxygen concentrators for home use. Myself and a select few other doctors, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, nurses, paramedics and EMTs went around doing home visits and helping to distribute oxygen to those who we felt we could treat at home. Visits were conducted once, sometimes twice a day, by Titrating oxygen as needed, checking vital signs, starting IV fluids, and drawing labs. These were just some of the services we provided to keep many people out of the hospital. There were some people we were forced to send to the hospital anyway, despite our best efforts. But there were many that were able to completely avoid the hospital, allowing them to be cared for by their loved ones. 

 

FAST FACTS: 

AJ ROTHSTEIN 

Status: Divorced with three beautiful children 

Currently lives in: Boro Park 

Grew up in: Toronto 

Nurse in: Brookdale University and Medical Center 

Title: Registered Nurse (RN) 

Years as a nurse: Two 

Medical Background: EMT for 20+ years. Worked at Maimonides in different capacities for 20 years. 

 

F irst of all, as a fellow Jew & a New Yorker I want to especially thank you for everything you’ve been doing for New York & Klal Yisrael the last couple of months. Well, thank you. We appreciate all the love that the community has shown to first responders and frontline workers for the past seven weeks. 

Please tell everyone what you have been up to since the coronavirus started? 

I have been in isolation. The invisible virus flipped the world as we know it. I began my emergency room (ER) nursing job at Brookdale Medical Center right before coronavirus hit the fan in March 2020. Due to my extensive exposure, I have not hugged or kissed my kids since Purim time. We planned early on that I would not have them over for weekends during the quarantine period. On a warm Friday in between the holidays of Purim and Pesach, I visited them from a distance. They came out to the back deck, and we spoke and danced for a little while. On the seventh day of Pesach, the kids walked over and surprised me. Well, maybe that is an understatement. We spent a few minutes in the hallway at a social distance. Other than a few street visits, it is all Zoom, phone, and WhatsApp video calls. 

 

What is a typical day like for you these days? 

During the height of COVID-19, aka “corona” (not the drink), I worked on a med-surg unit, where it was typical for a nurse to have 7-10 patients. Now, each nurse is assigned between 5-6 patients. Nowadays, I am towards the end of my orientation training and float between the Intensive Care Units (ICU).

 

At what point was it the worst? 

From the end of March till mid-April. I recall the weeks that we wore the same protective gown for three shifts in a row. There is a reason why they are called disposable gowns. At that point, PPE was not at our disposal. 

 

What is the most challenging part of the job these days? 

Going between COVID and non-COVID rooms. Considering that we use the same PPE supply for the entire shift, donning and doffing (putting on and removing off) is both time consuming and stressful. We meticulously remove the gown in a way that we do not shake the germs onto our clean scrubs. Cross-contamination is a huge concern. Also, people are stressed; families are frustrated because they are not allowed to be with their loved ones in the hospital. How much longer do you think corona is going to go on for? It depends on who you ask. From the looks of driving around the city, one would think that social distancing and quarantine is no longer a thing for many. Traffic is back to normal, and stores are filling up. 

 

How many times have you helped people say Viduy over the last two months? 

Demographically, there have not been requests that I am aware of at Brookdale. At the same time, working at the hospital as a frum nurse allowed me to represent what it means to be a yid, positively. All patients are human, despite ethnic, cultural differences. We have a continued responsibility to lead by example and care for each patient, equally.

 

Any crazy stories that you can share with our readers about something that happened over the last two months in the hospital? 

Does having a vent patient with life-saving IV drips on a medical floor (since there was no room in the ICU) count as a crazy story? There are a few memories that I will share. At the beginning of the virus, when obtaining adequate PPE from the hospital was not an option, several social media contacts jumped in and procured supply for our unit at zero cost. One shipment came from a Christian group, while others came from companies and individuals. The amount of public support is mind-blowing. On an emotional note, I recall seeing a text message on a patient’s phone from their daughter saying: Mom, we will see you soon. The crazy thing is that we just finished wrapping the woman’s body in preparation for the funeral home. This memory stings to this day.

 

A very hot topic over the last two months has been about patients having a visitor or visitors in the hospital. What is your take on that? 

The topic of visiting is indeed a hot topic. I received dozens of calls and social media messages from concerned leaders and family members. In general, families should be allowed and encouraged to visit. Visitors are helpful. They encourage and uplift the patient’s spirit, as well as bring closure to family members. In my experience, families heal better, knowing that everything possible was done. 

 

As a parent, do you think camps should be open this summer? 

I think there is a strong probability the camps will open, with changes, of course. There is a strong desire for normalcy. Kids need to get out, and parents want their sanity. On a cautionary note, the camp directors, parents, and leaders in the medical community need to come up with a comprehensive mitigation plan for returning to ‘normal.’ An outbreak during the summer will lead to devastation. 

 

What are two things you would do when quarantine is lifted besides hugging your kids? 

Get a haircut and a massage. 

 

Do you consider yourself a hero? 

I do NOT consider myself a hero. We are all heroes, at different times. Today it is the frontline healthcare workers; another time, it will be the teachers, etc. I believe that the hero’s excitement will wane quickly. 

 

Is there anything else that you would like to mention that we did not discuss? Remember the game, “Follow the Leader?” 

As much as we ALL want to return to pre-COVID, we need to follow our leaders. This within itself is a sensitive topic. Agreeing to who the leaders should be, is a subject beyond my paygrade. More specifically, I will yield others to Dr. Stuart Ditchek, who has a hand on the carotid artery of this issue and community concerns.