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New York officials turned the Javits Center in Manhattan into a temporary field hospital as the state tries to contain the rising coronavirus cases.
Bryan R. Smith/AFP via Getty Images

I was sent to be treated for Covid-19 at the Javits Center. Here’s what it’s like.

I’m not sure anyone is particularly enthused by the idea of being sent to a field hospital. But once there, my apprehension eased quickly.

Vox spoke with a patient who was recently treated at the Javits Center in New York City. The convention hall had just been converted into a field hospital run by the military for Covid-19 patients due to concerns about the city’s medical facilities becoming overwhelmed. While Cuomo has said the center had an expected capacity of about 2,500 people, much lower numbers of patients have been admitted thus far.

The patient wishes to remain anonymous, as he is discussing his medical history. This as-told-to is a composite of several interviews.

The last time I was at the Javits Center — the giant convention hall on Manhattan’s West Side — it must have been the International Auto Show, or the boat show, or perhaps to stop by one of those engineering conferences.

After all, if you live in New York long enough, you’ll end up finding yourself here sooner or later, for some reason or another. Of course, what I never expected was returning just past midnight, strapped to a stretcher in the middle of a pandemic.

I’d been sick for more than two weeks, and had known that I was positive for Covid-19 for several days, after getting the results of a test I took at my local, walk-in urgent care. At home, I’d spent most of my time lying in bed, with frustrating body aches, a fever, and an unrelenting loss of appetite. But even as some of those symptoms started to abate, my energy hadn’t recovered and I still felt sick. Getting up even briefly left me winded and weak, and I spent most of my days horizontal, waiting to feel better.

I’m a man in my 70s with high blood pressure. So after persistent prodding from my family, I returned to urgent care, where I found out I had concerningly low oxygen levels. I was sent to the emergency room and admitted. I was diagnosed with pneumonia, given supplemental oxygen, and started on Zithromax and hydroxychloroquine, the two drugs that are so prominently mentioned.

I’m not sure anyone is particularly enthused by the idea of being sent to a field hospital, let alone the Javits Center. And I was worried because I didn’t know who would be taking care of me, as opposed to my regular family doctor and the local hospital that I was familiar with. I didn’t know how I’d be able to communicate with my family and friends, and how and when I’d get out. I was also scared of being caught in the bureaucracy of the military, which I had no real familiarity with.

But after being settled in at the Javits Center, my apprehension eased quickly. My improvised, tent-like cubicle was comfortable, and my doctors and nurses were caring and watchful. And, in a strange way, seeing that other New Yorkers were being treated in a hospital erected seemingly overnight gave me hope that Covid patients were being well-taken care of.

I ended up at Javitz after the floor I was on at my local hospital was being restored to a regular, non-Covid surgical floor. So one evening last week, two transport personnel arrived, transferred me to a stretcher, and loaded me into an ambulance. They told me they had driven the ambulance all the way from San Antonio to New York, under a contract from FEMA.

After a bouncy, somewhat nauseating ride through the city, while I was still receiving oxygen, I was taken out at a loading dock in the Javits Center. A specialist took my vitals, but some medical paperwork was missing, so I was put back in the ambulance to return to my old hospital. Lying on the stretcher, worried, I was apprehensive I wouldn’t be taken back at my old hospital or admitted to Javits.

We did the whole operation again — riding through the city and being unloaded at Javits — and I was finally accepted at the field hospital at what must have been close to 1:30 in the morning. My “room” was separated by about 8-foot-tall gray partitions and long beige curtains. There was a chair, an oxygen concentrator, and an adjustable cot. I was not in the intensive care section, but an area that seemed to be for monitoring less-severe patients. I was surrounded by active duty and reserve military doctors, some of whom are volunteers. Many were from a contingent from Fort Hood, Texas.

In a way, my cubicle felt like a hospital room. But when you lie down on your back, you remember that you are — in fact — in a convention center, staring up to sky-high ceilings of steel. At night, the lights are dimmed, but they’re never turned off. It’s never completely silent, either. There’s always a quiet murmur of conversation. You have your privacy, but you never feel alone; you can always stick your head out and see medical staff walking around.

When you’re sick, you spend most of your mental energy occupied with your own symptoms. For me, Covid-19 has become a fixation with the blood oxygen levels reported on an oximeter, a small device that clips to your finger. The percentage fluctuates, and it can drive me crazy. When it goes down, I feel deflated. When it — occasionally — shows a very high number, I suspiciously mutter, “Don’t fuck with me.”

When you can, you notice what’s around you. The toilet facilities are a few steps away, they’ve set up trailers with restrooms — inside the building — like the ones you might see at a carnival or state fair. If needed, you’re accompanied to the bathroom by a medical person with oxygen.

When I left my cot, I saw New Yorkers from all walks of life. I saw people much more ill than I was.

You know that the staff is largely from the military from their handwritten name tags. But — mostly clad in protective gear — they looked the same, and as busy, as any medical staff dealing with Covid-19. Do I give credit to Andrew Cuomo, Bill de Blasio, or Donald Trump? I’d rather give the credit to the professional people running this place.

Of course, we are at war in a way. But my experience was in some ways like any other hospital. You need to advocate for yourself as much as you can. You need to remember your medications, your allergies, and your preexisting conditions. You gotta be prepared to speak up if you think there’s something that’s not quite right.

You know, I’d say it’s better not to get Covid in the first place, and I understand why someone would be anxious about coming here. But when I looked around, everything seemed to be in order. And I think they all did a fine job.

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