‘This was my chance to contribute’

Elmhurst staff member, powered by community support, sacrifices to serve her hospital through the pandemic.

Ingrid Baigorria swiped her keycard into her hotel room, balancing a tray of breakfast in her hands as she slid through the door and embraced the quiet that washed over her.

“You have no idea how it feels to have a good, warm meal after a night like that,” she said.

It was mid-morning and she had just finished an overnight shift at Elmhurst Hospital, “maintaining order in chaos” as one of the staff members responsible for registering the ceaseless flow of patients streaming into the Emergency Department or waiting anxiously in tents erected outside the hospital doors.

Throughout the spring of 2020, Ingrid’s was the first face people would see when they arrived at the hospital, many of them sick with severe COVID-19 symptoms and fearful and uncertain of what would come next.

But her voice is bright and her demeanor stabilizing, tempered with the calmness that comes from years of parenting. It’s the same voice she used to reassure her children every day over Facetime for more than a month that she was staying safe and healthy, that she loved them, and that she would be able to hug them soon.

A single mother, Ingrid had made the decision soon after the pandemic hit to protect her family by leaving her children with her mother and self-isolating in a hotel. For her, forgoing the comfort of her home and the embrace of her family for weeks on end was a small price to pay to stand alongside her coworkers and fight back against the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My kids were my biggest fans, the best cheerleaders—they were my motivation every day,” Ingrid said. “Yes, it was heartbreaking. But this was my chance to contribute.”

Ingrid remembers the first days of the pandemic in New York City as strange, sudden, and frightening, but simultaneously heartening. One day she was working on the floor of the Emergency Department with only a pair of gloves, and the next she was outfitted in full personal protective equipment (PPE). In the course of an eight-hour shift she would feel sinking lows from watching family members waiting outside the hospital doors for news of their sick and dying loved ones, and soaring highs from the messages of love and support for her and her coworkers that came flooding in from complete strangers.

She watched her colleagues laboring every day to save lives, even while some of them were losing family members, themselves.

“From hour to hour, it was just a different reality,” she said.

“It may sound small, but just not having to worry about ourselves was the greatest gift. That appreciation we felt was priceless.”

One constant she felt during those early days and weeks were the daily meals and supplies that were delivered to her facility. Food for Heroes, a program created and launched by the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City in April, provided 75,000 individually-packaged, grab-and-go meals to help sustain workers at Elmhurst Hospital through grueling shifts.

The program expanded in May to feed Office of the Chief Medical Examiner staff and healthcare workers who, like Ingrid, chose to stay in hotels to protect vulnerable family members at home, as well as healthcare workers who traveled from out-of-state to serve on the frontlines. August brought another expansion, with donations from thousands of individuals helping to bring meals to sanitation workers and staff at non-profit nursing homes across the five boroughs. In total, Food for Heroes brought more than 170,000 meals to New York City’s essential workers.

The Mayor’s Fund also partnered in April with the Debra and Leon Black Family, Aramark, the American Red Cross, and Robin Hood to launch NYC Healthcare Heroes, a $20 million program which delivered more than 400,000 care packages with more than 15 million products to frontline workers. The packages, filled with shelf-stable food, household cleaning and personal care products, over-the-counter medicine, and fresh fruit and nuts, helped alleviate the burden on essential workers of having to shop for themselves and their families.

“There wasn’t a single day we didn’t feel provided for,” Ingrid said. “It may sound small, but just not having to worry about ourselves was the greatest gift. That appreciation we felt was priceless.”

Many mornings after her shift ended, Ingrid would volunteer to help pass out to coworkers the meals donated through Food for Heroes. Seeing the joy and relief on the faces of doctors and nurses enjoying a moment of rest and a hot meal made it a labor of love well worth undertaking, she said. And although she was separated from her children and her mother, she found strength in the family she had come to rely on at Elmhurst.

“I didn’t see them as my coworkers. I saw them as my brothers, my sisters, my cousins,” Ingrid said. “We were praying together, eating together, crying together. And we were still finding ways to laugh in the middle of the chaos and the tragedy.”

When she was finally able to return home to her family without fear of getting them sick, Ingrid remembers the look of admiration on the faces of her children and the relative comfort that came from hoping she had weathered the worst of the storm.

“That feeling of hugging them again, it’s indescribable,” she said. “Being able to look at them and say yes, you’re safe. I felt my heart come back to me.”

Now, as healthcare workers across the city, including Ingrid, are getting vaccinated against the virus, she is looking forward to a future where that safety is not so fragile.

“I trust the science and I know that this is my shield to protect myself and my community,” she said. “The vaccine represents hope to end this virus.”

Ingrid won’t forget the toll the pandemic has taken and continues to take on New York City. But she also chooses to remember every care package, warm meal, handwritten note, and message of appreciation she has received. Above all, she is thankful for the strength of the community that she says she is grateful to belong to.

“This is what Elmhurst is—we are strong and we are showing that to the world,” Ingrid said. “We approach every day saying, ‘This is not going to last forever. We are in this together.’”