Life after COVID-19: Recovered New Yorkers find hope in helping others

Why We Wrote This

Known survivors of COVID-19 greatly outnumber lives lost. As buds of resilience begin to grace the previous epicenter of the virus, those who have recovered are moved to serve.

Sarah Matusek/The Christian Science Monitor
Jim Burke, a transportation and LGBTQ activist in New York City, has spent his recovery delivering groceries and meals with a local mutual aid group. He volunteers with Covid Care Neighbor Network in the borough of Queens, May 4, 2020.

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Globally, more than 3 million people have recovered from known cases of COVID-19. Yet as medical uncertainty about the virus persists, survivors are defining recovery on their own terms.

Pain, frustration, and fear of the unknown are common, but so is transformation. Several New Yorkers have begun to pour their renewed energies into giving – from volunteerism to donating plasma. As healing continues, they say serving others also fortifies themselves. 

“When you help, you feel much better,” says Nima Sherpa, a recovered nurse from Queens. “I felt like we got a new life, and we should try our best to participate.”

Their altruism underscores a growing body of research that suggests humans are hard-wired for generosity, and that giving benefits one’s health and well-being. 

Diana Berrent from Long Island founded Survivor Corps, a grassroots movement offering solidarity and resources for survivors. 

Survivor Corps, she says, is the “epicenter of hope.” “What we’re seeing on the Survivor Corps group is people who are in the thick of the illness literally counting down the days until they can be part of that solution.”

On a drizzly May day in New York City, Jim Burke lugs a cart of groceries through his Jackson Heights neighborhood. He isn’t headed home. The goods are for neighbors.

He pauses on the sidewalk in his mask and gloves. “It’s almost kind of selfish,” he says, to get joy out of giving. 

Earlier this spring, Mr. Burke spent 10 days struggling alone in his apartment with COVID-19. He’d muster all his might to get up and shave, then collapse back into bed for the rest of the day, feeling worse than ever before in his life. 

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Since mid-April, he’s found the strength to drop off bags of donated groceries for Covid Care Neighbor Network, a mutual aid group based in Queens. Used to busy days volunteering as a transportation and LGBTQ activist, he’d been itching to rejoin community service once he recovered.  

“It made me feel good for the first time in a long time,” he says.

Globally, more than 3 million people have recovered from known cases of COVID-19, according to data tracked by Johns Hopkins University. In New York, more than 68,000 have recovered – more than double the lives lost. Home to the previous epicenter of the virus, the state reported its lowest daily count of hospitalizations and deaths last Friday, down to 35 deaths from a high of 800 reached one day in April. The Big Apple began Phase 1 of reopening on Monday. 

Yet as medical uncertainty about the virus persists, survivors are defining recovery on their own terms. Pain, frustration, and fear of the unknown are common, but so is transformation. Several New Yorkers have begun to pour their renewed energies into giving, recognizing that their city’s road to recovery persists. As healing continues, they say serving others also fortifies themselves.

“When you help, you feel much better,” says Nima Sherpa, a recovered nurse. “I felt like we got a new life, and we should try our best to participate.”

Ms. Sherpa found herself in two places at once. Her mind often traipsed home to Nepal as she healed from symptoms of COVID-19. Eyes closed on her bed in Queens, she also stood on a Himalayan peak, lungs filled with azure air. 

Courtesy of Nima Sherpa
Nima Sherpa and her family enjoy a trip to Boulder County, Colorado, in January 2020. After recovering from COVID-19 symptoms earlier this spring, Ms. Sherpa, a registered nurse, has served as a helpline for her New York City Nepalese community as they navigate concerns about the virus.

Unable to get tested as her health declined in early March, the nurse scrambled to find one for her husband, who fared much worse. It took three tries before he was diagnosed – a frustration shared by many New Yorkers who faced a testing shortage early on. Her sons, ages 10 and 16, also became sick. 

“I would cry and then I would wipe my tears” in the bathroom, she says, before returning to her family’s side with medicine and soup. 

Though not usually religious, she turned to Buddhist mantras she learned as a child. She coaxed her bedridden husband to recite them, too. “I felt like it was helping us to breathe,” she says.  

Ms. Sherpa took particular comfort in a mantra that evokes Green Tara, goddess of compassionate action. She recalled the image of the goddess’ unique posture – one foot slightly forward, as if poised to rise. 

“My grandmother used to say she’s like that because she’s ready for anyone who needs help,” says Ms. Sherpa.

Fittingly, the Mount Sinai nurse has become a helpline for her own Nepalese community in Queens. As she awaits a return to work, she has waded through a daily flood of texts, Facebook messages, and phone calls from people worried about exposure to the virus, often in her native Nepali and Sherpa languages. She tries her best to soothe the fear and anxiety on the other end of the line. 

“That’s the most important part,” she says. 

Though her outreach tapered off mid-May as her family escaped to Colorado, Ms. Sherpa says she remains in touch with several strangers in New York who have received her support. Some call back with news of their own recovery. 

Others have found renewed purpose in returning to work. Jasoda Latchman, a recovered NYC Health + Hospitals nurse from Ozone Park, Queens, tested positive for COVID-19 in March. Now she’s back at her hospital in the Bronx, reaching patients via telehealth to respect social distancing.

“I love what I do, so I love to be back,” says Ms. Latchman on a lunch break call. “I would not [let] the COVID virus push me away.” 

Mounting evidence suggests humans may be hard-wired for generosity. Giving to others benefits health, mood, and even overcoming adversity, research shows.  

“There is a strong relationship between resilience and altruism,” says Steven Southwick, professor emeritus of psychiatry, post-traumatic stress disorder, and resilience at Yale University School of Medicine. “It’s very well known that giving support increases one’s social and emotional well-being, and decreases our stress responses.”

Courtesy of Diana Berrent and the Survivor Corps
Diana Berrent becomes the first participant at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center’s convalescent plasma program in New York City, March 2020. Ms. Berrent, a COVID-19 survivor, is the founder of Survivor Corps.

In the wake of World War II aerial bombardments, people who felt satisfied caring for the immediate needs of others developed fewer trauma-related symptoms than expected. This research introduced the phenomenon called “required helpfulness,” he notes in his book, “Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges.”

Research by behavioral scientist Carolyn Schwartz has found that helping others may benefit mental health even more than receiving help. For both medical patients and nonpatients alike, helping others can lead people to find meaning in their own life challenges, says Dr. Schwartz, president and chief scientist at DeltaQuest Foundation, a medical research nonprofit in Massachusetts. 

“By being able to help other people, it can transform the experience of something that makes all of us a victim to something that gives us agency,” says Dr. Schwartz, who is seeking participants for a study on psychological resilience during the pandemic.

Yet some recovered volunteers say they are still grappling with what they outlived. Surviving the virus in a community that is still grieving “takes a toll,” says Covid Care volunteer coordinator Dawn Falcone.

“I feel like it’s a good day if I don’t know anybody who passed away,” she told the Monitor in April.

Mr. Burke is also mourning the loss of several friends and acquaintances. “I’m going to be processing this for a while. ... Part of me feels like I cheated death,” he says.  

Much about the new coronavirus still eludes scientists. There are no definitive answers yet on immunity and long-term effects of COVID-19. “So far, no studies have answered these important questions,” according to a World Health Organization statement sent to the Monitor. 

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers two definitions of recovery for symptomatic health care workers looking to return to work: one based on symptoms, the other on testing. Some doctors are pursuing experimental treatments that involve the blood plasma of those who have recovered – a century-old approach used to treat past viral outbreaks, including coronaviruses SARS and MERS.

Diana Berrent sums up recovery as a “bizarre, sort of liminal state.” She’s made the most of it by donating plasma six times and founding a grassroots movement, Survivor Corps. 

She calls the virtual community the “epicenter of hope” that aims to hasten the pandemic’s end and help develop a cure. Survivor Corps’ website gathers research and how-to resources for mobilizing plasma donors, while its 54,000-member Facebook group offers a space for solidarity. 

After testing positive for COVID-19 on Long Island in March, Ms. Berrent first envisioned organizing a global group akin to a COVID-19 Peace Corps, even offering hands for the dying to hold without adding risk to hospitals. But given the unsolved mystery of reinfection, she’s focused her efforts on donating her own antibody-rich plasma to science and calling on others to participate in the evolving research.

“To think that I’m actively contributing to the research that can bring about a cure to this is such an incredibly empowering idea and motivation,” she says. “What we’re seeing on the Survivor Corps group is people who are in the thick of the illness literally counting down the days until they can be part of that solution.”

Dean E. Williams Jr. joined Survivor Corps on Facebook and recently donated plasma. Having overcome the virus in isolation, he yearns to reunite with others. 

Mr. Williams says he didn’t fear death. As he struggled to breathe alone in his Harlem apartment, his greatest fear was disappointing his 5-year-old daughter. He says he spent more than two months without seeing her as he quarantines in New York and she stays with family in another state. Online chess games and her reading of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” over Skype has helped. 

In her absence, the recovered Harlem Rotary Club president keeps busy with community outreach and organizing meal donations. He says his daughter joined him in community service as early as age 2, and hopes to bring her along volunteering when they’re reunited. In the meantime, a virtual sandwich-making party to benefit local food banks might soon be in order. 

While they continue to live apart, a highlight came in mid-May as he was able to visit her for the first time in weeks – showering promptly after his arrival before they could embrace.

“It was the biggest hug she’s ever received from me,” he says. “She had the biggest smile on her face.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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