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There’s deep and abiding gratitude. And there’s COVID-19 survivor Jeff Gerson, who took his thanks to another level.
Gerson arrived March 18 at the NYU Langone Tisch Hospital in Manhattan with a 103 degree fever, an uncontrollable cough and a bad prognosis. The coronavirus casualty went on a ventilator the next day, waking up a month later with no memory of his miraculous recovery or the dozens of frontline workers who saved his life.
That was soon to change.
When the 44-year-old patient returned home May 2, he felt a gnawing need to thank them all – a total of 116 doctors, nurses, therapists and other anonymous medical heroes of the pandemic. The finance professional turned into an online detective, using a hospital app and his own insurance records to track down dozens of his benefactors across the next five months.
And then, as Thanksgiving neared, he sent them all a note of deep appreciation.
“If you are receiving this letter, it is because I have become aware that you had a part in saving my life,” wrote the grateful Upper East Side resident. “It is only after much effort on my part to find your names that I realize just how many of you there were.”
Gerson, now six months out of the hospital and healthy, recalled the flood of emotions accompanying his recovery from a virus that claimed more than 260,000 American lives.
“I was crying every morning, literally,” said Gerson. “I had questions: Why did I survive? I certainly had thoughts about what I needed to do in my life now, to make this worthwhile.”
He thought of the climactic scene in the film “Saving Private Ryan,” where the dying Tom Hanks character urged Matt Damon’s character to “earn this” – to carry on for those lost trying to save him.
“I was just really thankful, and lucky, and grateful,” he recalled. “I wanted to say thank you. I just wanted to thank everybody.”
His first thought was a party, but a peek outside his hospital room window provided a glimpse of how the world had changed since his hospitalization. Looking west on 33rd St. from First Ave., he could count on one hand the number of parked cars all the way across Manhattan to Penn Station.
“I had no idea what the rest of the world was going through,” he explained. “I was just so thankful these people were doing their job and taking the risks they had taken. And my inability to thank them for such special and heroic treatment was really leaving a void in my recovery process.”
It took a while, but Gerson compiled his list and composed the heartfelt three-page message of thanks sent out Nov. 10.
NYU Langone Dr. Luis Angel recalled the insanity engulfing the hospital back when Gerson arrived: 170 coronavirus patients, all on ventilators. Over the course of the next three months, about 40% of the hospital’s ventilated COVID-19 victims did not survive, he recalled.
Angel was surprised and thrilled by the unexpected thank you note from one who did.
“I’ll tell you, it’s incredible,” said Angel. “To find every name and give a thank you to everybody – we don’t live for that. But when we get it, we absolutely enjoy and appreciate that.”
Angel stresses he was just a cog in a bigger machine of Gerson’s saviors: “This is a credit to everyone. Everyone did the best for him.”
The dozens of workers whose efforts spared his life included visiting nurses from coast to coast, volunteers who came to the city from California, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina.
The hospital staff at NYU Langone Tisch Hospital clapping for Jeffrey Gerson when he left.
The hospital staff at NYU Langone Tisch Hospital clapping for Jeffrey Gerson when he left. (Obtained by Daily News)
In the end, Gerson failed to reach just one of his rescuers: Dr. Sydney Mehl, who treated him only to die weeks later from the deadly virus. Gerson recalled searching the internet for Mehl’s contact information only to find his obituary.
“I have since reached out to his wife, and found her through Facebook,” said Gerson. “He was dedicated right to the end. That’s the kind of doctor he was.”
With Thanksgiving arriving, Gerson’s life is back to normal. He takes daily bike rides through Central Park, and spends time with his 6-year-old son.
“It’s surreal,” he said. “I won’t say it feels like it happened to somebody else. But I’m not feeling any ill effects, I have not slowed down at all.”
He believes the letter of thanks was sent at a good time, shortly after the six-month anniversary of his release from the hospital and as the number of positive cases starts to climb.
“It does feel like the timing of the letter just came together,” he said. “People are forgetting what’s going on out there on the front lines.”
Gerson ended his missive with a request for his heroes to contact him, to celebrate their heroic efforts and to keep up the life-saving work.
“Continue doing what you do,” he concluded. “Continue being the heroes you are and know you will forever have my gratitude.”