Life in the pandemic: Ridgefield Historical Society is archiving COVID-19 stories
The problems of the present are the future’s history. And people’s lives — as much as politicians’ decisions — are the sinews of the story historians will seek to know.
A doctor talking about the strains of living separately from her family for months to protect them from the coronavirus she’s exposed to at work in a New York hospital is one of many stories people can hear, now and in the future, by exploring the Ridgefield Historical Society’s COVID-19 Archival Project.
“Because of my exposure, I moved out from where my immediate family is,” said Janine Limoncelli, a Ridgefield resident and physician at Weill-Cornell Medical Center in New York. “I have been self-quarantining at another place in Ridgefield, and have been here by myself except for going to and from work, for the past eight weeks.”
Sometimes she gets to see her family.
“We’ll gather in one of our driveways, staying 6 feet apart,” she said.“ ... It’s been very difficult. I have not touched another human being without having a pair of double gloves on in over eight weeks. It’s very isolating and it’s very lonely.”
Others stories in the Historical Society’s coronavirus archive include Fire Chief Jerry Myers description of the fire department’s efforts to work safely while picking up patients in ambulances during the pandemic; Meals on Wheels chairman Dean Miller’s account of how the volunteer organization has persevered in its efforts to serve the community; beauty salon owner Adam Broderick’s story of how the virus affected his business; English teacher Ashley Vidmar’s description of how awareness of the coronavirus at Ridgefield High School led to the premature end of classes for the 2019-20 school year; Library Director Brenda McKinley’s account of how the pandemic affected her organization; and First Selectman Rudy Marconi’s personal account of contracting the disease and suffering through its debilitating efforts for weeks under the care of his wife, Peggy.
They’re all available on the Ridgefield Historcial Society’s website, ridgefieldhistoricalsociety.org.
Like Limoncelli, Myers spoke of the way the virus had cut off firefighters in the department from normal interactions that are part of their lives.
“Probably the single largest impact on us is isolation,” Myers said. “We are a very public department. Our doors are open day and night. People wander in and out of the fire station. ... All of sudden we had to flip a switch. We were cut off from the general public.”
Firefighters also limited contact with each other, even members on the same shift.
“Six firefighters in this station and two firefighters in the north station, and suddenly we couldn’t all sit in the same room and have a conversation anymore,” he said.
“The danger was, if one person got infected and then worked around the shift that day, he could potentially infect all eight people on duty that day. One person could eliminate 25 percent of current work force,” Myers said. “Community meals had to stop — we had to have meals individually, or in groups of two.”
Limoncelli said the entire staff at Weill-Cornell Medical Center felt overwhelmed and frightened.
“We just could not believe this was happening not only within our country but within our city,” she said.
She recalled grasping how afraid everyone was during a training session concerning the use of personal protective equipment.
“We all had to go to a simulation lab where we were learning how to put on PPE,” she said. “ ... The terror in my colleagues eyes was unforgettable.”
The virus is highly contagious, and even in a medical community there were many unknowns.
“With COVID, that barrier of safety between catching what the patient had was completely gone,” Limoncelli said.
Going into work at the hospital “meant putting our life at risk — and not putting our life at risk but putting our family’s lives at risks as well,” she said.
Still, Limoncelli found a positive side to the emergency.
“Despite how severe COVID is, how destructive it is, I think as a community ... it has brought out a bright spot within people,” she said.
“What I see is the generosity of people being brought out, with people donating masks, with small restaurants in New York City who have no business coming in, where they’re going to their businesses and making meals and distributing meals to people in need, or health care workers,” she said. “I find that beyond heartwarming, the kindness and thankfulness from people.”
At the fire department, too, firefighters/paramedics began wearing personal protective equipment.
“It was particularly important for us to make sure no infection came back to the firehouse,” Myers said.
“We had to wear eye protection, face masks, gloves — some of which we’re used to wearing on a regular basis anyway,” Myers said.
When responding to a call that involved a known or suspected coronavirus case, the level of protection increased and firefighters wore disposable head-to-toe outfits made of a special material produced by Dupont.
“Tyvek protective suits, we don’t do on a regular basis,” Myers said. “For us, each time we entered a scene where a patient had or was suspected of having COVID-19, everyone on our team had to wear that equipment to make sure we were not bringing any infection back to the firehouse. That was a challenge for us in terms of the uncomfortableness of it, and the movement restriction.”
The personal protective equipment was suddenly in demand all across the nation, so acquiring it became difficult.
“We, as well as the rest of the nation, were challenged to find suppliers that could supply us,” Myers said.
While firefighters had always taken pride in keeping the fire house clean, Myers said, the importance of cleaning took on a whole new dimension.
“We had to change the way we think about cleaning and disinfecting the fire house,” he said. “Suddenly it was necessary to be disinfecting the building a minimum of four times a day. The engines and ambulances had to be disinfected after each use.”
Similar to Limoncelli, the firefighters had new concerns about interacting their families.
“Our firefighter-paramedics were still taking care of their homes, taking care of their families,” Myers said. “Their families were clearly worried about them being exposed to COVID-19 on a daily basis, so there was a fair amount of stress on our members.”
In the face of the pandemic, overburdened hospitals and emergency rooms sometimes revised protocols for various situations.
Patients who had died by the time the ambulance arrived — of a heart attack, for example — would normally have been treated a certain way.
“We automatically would have immediately begun life saving procedures, and transported them to the hospital,” Myers said.
But emergency rooms, which are in radio contact with firefighter-paramedics in the department’s ambulances, began taking a closer look at the underlying assumption that every life can be saved “if it appeared the effort was not going to be successful,” Myers said.
“That was a challenge for us; it’s not in our nature to abandon a resuscitation effort,” Myers said. “Hospitals were guarding against becoming so overwhelmed they couldn’t provide basic care.”
Like Limoncelli, Myers spoke of the kindness, generosity and thankfulness of the public, which helped keep firefighters’ spirits up. People seemed aware of and grateful for the risks firefighters in order to do their jobs, and the firefighters knew it.
“One of things that made it easier for everybody were the constant daily signs of recognition from the community,” Myers said, “from kids sending cards to people going out and banging pots at 7:05 every night to say ‘Hey we’re with you’ to the people who dropped off meals, to the businesses that said, ‘Hey we’re going to feed you one day a week.”