Vincent Brescia was planting an apple tree in his Staten Island backyard when he experienced terrible chest pain. He waited two hours to call 911 because he was afraid he would contract the coronavirus, which has killed over 15,000 people in New York, but that decision to wait could have cost him his life.
That apple tree was going to be Brescia's way to memorialize the pandemic, Brescia says, but it led to him having to get open heart surgery at the Staten Island University Hospital in the middle of COVID-19 crisis.
“I waited a lot longer than I would have under normal circumstances before we called the ambulance," Brescia told NBC New York. He's not alone. With 911 calls having reached record highs, many New Yorkers are hesitant to call for help because they either don't realize how sick they are, or don't want to risk exposing themselves to the virus.
Once Brescia got to the hospital, doctors had to get creative to find a way to keep him safe as they perform quadruple bypass surgery on him, the first in the hospital since the outbreak started.
"Our first reaction was – oh my god. How are we gonna do this?" said Dr. Mohammed Imam, Chair of Cardiothoracic Surgery. He and other doctors had to think fast because Brescia needed life-saving surgery and they needed to find a place where he can safely recover.
Doctors ended up turning the operating room into a cardiothoracic ICU. The operation was successful and Brescia spent five days there.
"The whole idea was to keep him as safe as possible during this time. There’s no safer place than the operating room," Imam said.
Doctors are worried that there are many more patients like Brescia, hesitant to go to the hospital. In fact, the city’s Emergency Medical Services confirmed Thursday that the number of cardiac arrest calls that end with people dying at home has skyrocketed — with more than 70% of the people dying at home, compared to roughly 40% this time last year.
"The risk of dying at home from these problems is just as high, if not higher, than if you contract COVID," Dr. Imam said.
Brescia was greeted with a round of applause as he left the hospital without contracting COVID-19, and he has only one message for those who could end up in similar situation: "Call for help right away. Don’t wait.”