Coronavirus, New York

On The Front Lines: A Haitian-American Doctor Works Around The Clock To Save Brooklyn Lives From Coronavirus

Dr. Tamara Moise/ photo courtesy of Dr. Moise

Doctors, nurses and hospital employees across New York City are on the frontlines of the war against the coronavirus pandemic, which has now taken thousands of lives and infected every  borough.

Dr. Tamara Moise, a Haitian-American emergency room doctor who opened the first Black-owned Urgent Care Center in Brooklyn, has been working around the clock to help save lives from the deadly virus.

Dr. Moise splits her time between the emergency room at Brookdale Hospital Medical Center and the Urgent Care she owns on Church Avenue, working tirelessly to help patients that are increasingly showing up more and more sick.

She works about 4-6 shifts in the emergency room each month, averaging about two shifts each week. She then spends the rest of her time helping patients at the Urgent Care, hoping to relieve some of the load felt by emergency rooms across Brooklyn. Her co-owner also works at a hospital and the two split time at the Urgent Care, doing their best to see everyone that comes in. 

At the hospital, Dr. Moise said they’re now seeing less patients due in small part to recent governmental efforts to keep people at home and lower the infection rate. But each of the patients that does decide to come to the emergency room are showing up extremely sick, even “deathly ill” she said. 

“Even though it’s less people, it’s a lot of resources and it’s very, very sick people. I’m in the hood, so it’s sick people. We are not a healthy population. It’s a very tough situation because I’m in Brooklyn, in the Brownsville and East New York Area. We get Haitian patients here and a lot of West Indians. Unfortunately, our community is not the healthiest, sometimes due to a lack of resources and other reasons,” Dr. Moise said.

“The problem is that because we have such high rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease, we’re the ones that suffer a lot from this because the coronavirus attacks the people that have those medical problems especially, so it’s tough.”

Dr. Moise’s on-the-ground assessment has been proven true in recent days by dozens of reports from across the country showing that Black communities are being hit particularly hard by coronavirus. 

Data from communities in Milwaukee, Detroit, New Orleans, Chicago and New York released this week shows Black people are bearing the brunt of the virus due to a variety of health conditions endemic to communities of color. During a White House press conference on Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci spoke passionately about how staggering it was to look at the data and see how the virus was disproportionately killing Black people across the country due to longstanding systemic healthcare issues. 

This issue is exacerbated further in immigrant Black communities that for decades have struggled with a general fear of healthcare institutions due to concerns over immigration status, poverty and a lack of access to adequate medical care. 

“In the Haitian community, we don’t take our blood pressure seriously. We don’t take our diabetes seriously and that’s all a big problem. In this situation, I’m worried. Even obesity seems like a risk factor, in the sense that if you are obese or overweight and you happen to get coronavirus, you can get severly ill, whether you have to be hospitalized or you may not make it. On top of all those other risk factors are things like high blood pressure,” Dr. Moise said.

“I work in the emergency room and in the outpatient section, so I know who belongs in the ER and who doesn’t. And we try to keep as many people out of the ER as possible for those who just have mild disease. If you have a mild disease, you should just be staying home so that you don’t spread it.”

Based on the data available, New York is suffering more than any city in the United States due to the virus, which as of Wednesday had killed at least 4,695 people and infected more than 80,204 people in the city. 

Between April 7 and April 8, 716 people lost their lives due to COVID-19 across all five boroughs, and city officials say these figures are severe underestimates because many people are contracting the virus and dying at home without ever being tested or counted. On April 9, 799 New Yorkers died, forcing the city to start digging deeper mass graves for those passing away.

In an interview on Tuesday, US Surgeon General Jerome Adams said flatly that “I and many Black Americans are at higher risk for COVID. It’s why we need everyone to do their part to slow the spread.”

Brooklyn alone has 21,580 confirmed cases and 1,185 reported deaths, forcing dozens of hospitals to rent refrigerated container trucks because morgues were so full. In newly released data on Wednesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Black people make up 28 percent of all the city’s COVID-19 deaths despite representing just 22 percent of the city’s total population.

“From what the epidemiologists are saying, in New York it looks like we haven’t reached our peak yet, so things are going to continue to get a little bit worse before they get better unfortunately. They’re saying that we are going to hit our peak in a couple of weeks, so from now until then, it’s gonna be tough,” Dr. Moise said.

“I know it’s tough. I’ve seen people die, so I know it’s tough.”

The search for personal protective equipment

As the owner of an Urgent Care, she has been directly in the middle of the raging debate over the U.S. government’s inability to provide personal protective equipment to thousands of nurses and doctors across the country. 

Much has been made in the press about the government’s inability to provide healthcare workers with the tools needed to keep people safe as they care for those dying from COVID-19. Because of the lackluster response from the federal government, state leaders have resorted to fighting over masks, gowns, gloves and other equipment for their nurses and doctors. 

Some nurses have even quit over their facility’s inability to provide them with the protection needed to care for those requiring the most help.

Dr. Moise said the hospital where she works at one point did not have enough personal protective equipment but finally started to get enough supply. Yet the situation is more difficult for her Urgent Care. 

“We’re starting to get some in now and for the Urgent Care, because I’m a private small business, it’s even more difficult for me to get PPE but I do have it. I’ve just been fighting and fighting because I have to make sure I have it because I have to protect my staff and the patients,” Dr. Moise said.

“It’s a challenge for me to get all of the PPE, especially for the Urgent Care. But I’m fighting, I’m making calls on my days off. On a day off, I’m sitting there applying for small business loans, I’m making a bunch of calls to see where I can get more masks and where I can get gowns. I’m doing all this while I’m working and seeing patients.”

When it comes to coronavirus tests, Dr. Moise said more tests are now available but they are still short, so they are not allowed to test everyone. They can only test those who are at high risk of dying from coronavirus, have a variety of medical problems or currently have symptoms. 

Dr. Moise added that it is incredibly expensive to own a business in the medical field and she is still on the lookout for more personal protective equipment, so if anyone is willing to donate tools to her, they can call her Urgent Care at 718-287-0616. 

“Look, I’m one of the only Haitian-owned Urgent Care in Brooklyn and I’m the first one. I’m there for the community and I’m here to protect the community, to stop the spread. It’s important for me to have the resources,” Dr. Moise said. 

“If I don’t have resources, I can’t stay open.”

Her start in the medical field

The Queens-born doctor is the daughter of Haitian immigrants and has been working in the field for more than a decade. 

Her father wanted her to be a doctor because he worked in the medical field himself and she worked her way through school at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. She spent years working at hospitals in New Jersey before making her way to a position as an emergency medicine attending physician at NYU Langone Hospital in Brooklyn.

She had always wanted to open her own Urgent Care and her husband urged her to take the leap and start it because of her longstanding commitment to the community. 

She eventually opened her Urgent Care with emergency room professional Wadson Fils in April 2018 to much fanfare and praise from local leaders and politicians. 

“It’s a blessing that I get to work with my people. I wound up working in a Haitian community and I invite a lot of Haitians to come see us because we’re still fairly new and I’m still trying to get the word out,” Dr. Moise said. 

“We just started making sure we’re getting our name out there because when you’re coming to a Haitian-owned place, we can speak Creole with you and we understand the culture. There are better outcomes that way. I love doing community work and outreach, and when you open up a business in the community, it really allows you to do that.”

Advice for everyone

Dr. Moise said it was important that anyone who has coronavirus symptoms stays home and for the Haitian community, it was key that people take it seriously. Unfortunately, when the coronavirus pandemic first emerged, there were a number of false news reports and jokes about Black people not being able to contract the virus. 

This has now been proven false repeatedly by medical officials and scientists, yet many Haitians and Haitian-Americans continue to ignore concerns around the virus. 

“For the Haitian community, the most important thing is take it seriously. In the Haitian community, there are definitely some sectors of us that are not taking it seriously and we’re dying, straight up,” Dr. Moise said. 

“I don’t know what it’s gonna take for people to stop gathering and hanging out because yes, a lot of people are staying home, but you still have groups of people, even within the Haitian community, that are still hanging out in close quarters and just acting like it’s nothing.” 

She also said that anyone with preexisting medical issues needs to see a doctor and make sure they have the right medication. Many of the people dying from coronavirus had diseases or illnesses that they either did not know about or were not addressing through medication or advice from doctors.

The vast majority of deaths connected to coronavirus involve people who have certain conditions, so If a doctor has told you that you have diabetes or high blood pressure, now is the time to put pride aside and address it, Dr. Moise added. 

Even if you don’t feel anything related to the illness, if a doctor tells you that you have an issue, you need to take the medication associated with it and address it as soon as possible before it is too late. The more uncontrolled your medical problems are, the higher chance you have of dying from coronavirus, Dr. Moise told The Haitian Times. 

“These are the people that are dying from it,” Dr. Moise said. “The ones that have medical problems that have not been taken care of.”

She added that the peak of the outbreak in New York may reach its worst point within the next two weeks. Dr. Moise and other experts, including those in the White House, have said there is hope that warmer summer weather will slow down the spread of the disease. But doctors are still studying the virus and can’t guarantee anything.

It is a new virus, so doctors and scientists are largely learning as they go along. There are also already concerns about the potential for a second wave or third wave in the fall that may lead to a resurgence of the pandemic as cold weather returns. 

More than anything, Dr. Moise stressed that Haitians and Haitian-Americans have to respect the disease because of how deadly it is. 

Sadly, Dr. Moise noted that there are many people who will only treat the virus with the importance it deserves once they lose someone close to them, and she reiterated that by the end of this crisis, most people will know or be connected to someone who is killed by coronavirus. 

“At Big Apple Urgent Care, we’re here for everybody. But we are Haitian owned and we definitely invite the community to call us and to stop by so we can help them. Whatever questions you have, if you need to be seen or evaluated, that’s what we’re here for,” Dr. Moise said. 

“To my Haitian people, you really need to understand that you’re going to lose people. A lot more people are going to die than need to if we don’t stay home and stop hanging out. The only time people start taking it seriously is if they lose somebody, and a lot of people are going to lose people. I hate to be grim like that but I’m just keeping it real. Everyone is going to know someone that died. I already know people that died personally. This is not a joke.” 

Jonathan Greig

Jonathan Greig

Jonathan Greig is a journalist based in New York City working as a contributing writer for CBS Interactive. He recently returned to the United States after reporting from South Africa, Jordan, and Cambodia since 2013.
Jonathan Greig
Apr. 13, 2020

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