Lisa Kilfeather normally works on the administrative side of things at the morgue at Long Island Jewish Medical Center.
But there are so many bodies coming in, she’s been drafted in to help move them. Her small team is working seven days a week, processing and examining the many victims of COVID-19.
“We’re physically exhausted. We’re mentally exhausted,” she says.
She hasn’t seen her daughter for three weeks – too worried that she might infect her because she’s been working so closely with the bodies of people who have died as a result of the virus.
The way the team works has changed dramatically. Families can no longer attend the morgue to say goodbye. So Lisa has had to get creative. Yesterday she did a FaceTime call with a woman so she could see the body and say goodbye.
“I first let her see me so I could explain what she’s going to see. We can’t keep the bodies the way we normally do as far as sheets. It was in a body bag and you’re seeing the face. So that was difficult. I’m not going to lie, I cried. It was tough.
“But if we could do at least one thing to make this hard time for them a little buy easier, that’s what we’re going to do, no matter how crazy our day is and how much work we have to get done.
“We’re going to do our best for that family.”
Pathologist Dr Alex Williamson who works alongside Lisa says autopsies of COVID-19 patients are critical to understanding the virus and in the long term, saving lives.
He and the team are under pressure. “I really admire our colleagues on the front lines who are dealing with the patients coming in with COVID-19.
“They’re trialling them, treating them. But I think people also need to realise there’s another front in this war and that’s the front with the dead.”
He, like so many on the front line of this crisis, is learning on the job.
“What makes this one scary for all of us is that we don’t really know yet what COVID-19 does to us. We think and it’s a fair assessment, that this is primarily a lung pathology.
“They come in with difficulty breathing and are short of breathe and you see the need for ventilators. So respiratory pathology plays an important role in this disease. But that may not be the whole picture.”
So far, he’s carried out two post-mortems and both patients had pre-existing health conditions. But he’s only at the beginning of this learning curve and it’s steep.
He says pathologists across the world need to look at as many COVID-19 victims as they can in the coming weeks.
Autopsy assistant Devon Betts, says they are all checking in with each other everyday to make sure they are coping emotionally. They’ve been working non-stop and have had to build an extra morgue to accommodate the dead.
Dealing with bereaved families has been especially demanding. It’s always hard working with the families at this point in time. But even more so now when they’re not able to see their loved ones in their last moments.
They are brave, kind and dedicated people dealing with an incredible amount of stress. Their fear is that their jobs are about to get even harder, as New York awaits the peak of this terrible pandemic.