When the coronavirus pandemic hit the East End with sudden devastation, local health care workers stepped up to keep us safe. In this weeklong series ahead of the Thanksgiving season, we’re proud to highlight their work and show them our gratitude.
Charlie Parker | Environmental services, Peconic Bay Medical Center
Some of the roads were still dirt when Charlie Parker was growing up in Riverhead, where his dad worked as the head of housekeeping at what was then called Central Suffolk Hospital and is now Peconic Bay Medical Center. A former musician and military veteran, he traveled to Saudi Arabia, Africa and Ireland in a 39-year career in the Air National Guard before returning full circle to work in environmental services at the hospital.
“I work at the hospital from 4 a.m. to 2 p.m. One day in early March, I was walking across the street to the front door of the lobby and I was short of breath. I thought, what is this? I’m a very active guy; I had just done nine miles walking around the track. But I had suffered in the past with sarcoidosis, which is an autoimmune deficiency lung disease, and I’m a survivor of prostate cancer.
So I took a test — you know, the brain tickler, not good. On the sixth day of waiting for the results I told my wife, ‘I can’t take it. I can’t breathe.’ I couldn’t walk from the living room to the bathroom. She took me to the emergency room and the last thing I remember is the security guard asking me if I had traveled outside the country and then I collapsed into a wheelchair.
I had double pneumonia and was positive for COVID. Everyone asks me how I got it, but I have no idea.
I was in the hospital for five and a half weeks — no visitors. My wife and kids could call, but they didn’t because just talking would bring on the hacking. Everyone in the ICU, they were fantastic. I remember them saying, ‘We got you, Charlie. You can do this, child. We love you.’ Mr. Mitchell [Andrew Mitchell, the hospital’s CEO], would come to the nurses’ station and check on me all the time. They really pulled me out of this whole thing.
The housekeepers would come into my room to clean and they’d have two masks on, and a plastic overgarment, and the sweat was just dripping off. But they worked as hard as they normally do. It’s just like in the military. We go into the battle. And that’s the thing you got to admire. They’re going into danger, knowingly. Everybody else is leaving and they’re going in. Same thing with nursing. It was like a war zone, but nobody quit their jobs. You have some strong, tough people and caring professionals.
I didn’t know until I had left the hospital and come back to work that I was this far from the ventilator. So I was blessed, lucky, whatever you want to call it. It just wasn’t my time to go. I do still have some shortness of breath, but I’m better than what I was, believe me.
I want to tell everyone to be safe. This is serious and it’s not going anywhere. The mask right now is the vaccine. And I’d definitely say thank you to the staff and the community for their support. Not only for helping me, but helping the hospital through a hard time. They all know at the hospital the possibility that it could come back — people are still doing foolish things, and even one person can spread it so easily. If it does, they’re ready for it.”