Baltimore doctor Joseph Costa, a health care worker on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, died Saturday after contracting the coronavirus he was working to treat.
Costa, the chief of the critical care division at Mercy Medical Center was a scientist who “lived through his brain” and loved his job more than anything in the world, said David Hart, his husband of 28 years. As he lay dying, about 20 colleagues held a vigil and placed their blue-gloved hands on him.
“Those who cared for Joe were his best friends,” Hart said. “A housekeeper who knelt by his bed and shook with grief said, ‘I’m now losing my best friend.’”
Hart said he placed his cheek next to Costa’s and held his husband in his arms until he died around 4:45 a.m.
“I keep thinking, now there is one less ICU doctor to care for pandemic patients in Baltimore,” Hart said.
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, health care professionals on the front lines have warned of the dangers they face in treating patients with the infectious disease. In total, 3,315 Marylanders have died due to the disease or complications from it since officials began tracking the virus in March.
“I keep thinking, now there is one less ICU doctor to care for pandemic patients in Baltimore.”
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While it’s not clear how Costa contracted the virus, his death was a blow to a medical community grappling with the biggest medical crisis of modern times. Dozens of people responded to news of Costa’s death on social media Monday, some referring to the doctor as a “hero.”
In a tweet Monday, Neda Frayha said she worked with Costa during her residency.
“I vividly remember being on call overnight, caring for very sick patients on the floor, & feeling so much calmer when Dr. Costa came to help,” Frayha said in the tweet. “He was kind and brilliant. This weekend he died of covid in his own ICU.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 576 healthcare workers have died from complications caused by COVID-19 — a figure that is likely low due to incomplete data.
And Maryland’s case counts appear to be climbing again, with more than 1,000 new cases confirmed Monday. The state reported that 536 people are hospitalized, up from 385 earlier this month.
On March 18, Baltimore resident Michael Green was admitted to Mercy’s intensive care unit as one of the hospital’s first COVID-19 patients. He was soon intubated and placed in a medically induced coma for close to seven weeks.
With restrictions preventing family members from visiting Michael, his wife, Gail, called daily to check on his status and often spoke to Costa. Costa was honest in his briefings, Gail said, but “always made us feel like we shouldn’t give up hope.”
“He said to me, ‘Because families can’t be here, we not only think of your husband as our patient, but you’re our patients as well. And we’re here to take care of you as much as we’re here to take care of your husband,‘” Gail said.
After awakening from his coma, Michael, 63, was moved to a rehab facility to regain his strength and continue his recovery. It wasn’t until June 29 that he was discharged and allowed to return home.
“The thing that disappoints me the most,” Michael said, “is that one day I would hope that I could have walked back into Mercy and thank him and the rest of the staff that worked under him and tell him how much I appreciated what he did. And now that won’t happen.”
Said Gail: “I thank God for him, and I know he saved Michael’s life. There’s just no question in my mind that he did.”
Hart said his husband was the bravest man he ever knew.
“I get so angry when I see people not wearing masks,” Hart said. “It makes me want to take a bar of soap and write on my car’s rearview window that ‘My husband who saved so many lives died of COVID-19. Wear a mask!’”
Costa “dedicated his life and career to caring for the sickest patients,” Mercy officials wrote in a statement.
“When the global pandemic came down upon us, Joe selflessly continued his work on the front lines — deeply committed to serving our patients and our City during this time of great need,” officials said in the statement. “His memory will live on as an example to us all.”
Costa graduated from the University of Maryland School of Medicine in 1990. He had worked for Mercy since 1997, specializing in pulmonary and critical care, and served as chief of the Division of Critical Care for the last 15 years. He served as an officer in multiple roles since 2010, including secretary/treasurer, vice president and medical staff president from 2014 to 2016.
Costa also chaired the Medical Morals Committee and served as a member of the Mercy Health Services Board of Trustees Mission and Corporate Ethics Committee.
Hart described Costa as an “egalitarian person” who arrived early to work and frequently volunteered to work holidays so that his colleagues with children wouldn’t have to, he said.
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Outside of work, Costa was a voracious reader and fluent in German and Italian. The couple’s Bolton Hill house is filled with “stacks and stacks” of books, Hart said. For the last three years, Costa read mostly Italian works.
Costa was also a talented pianist and had recently learned to play the mandolin, Hart said.
A year or so ago, the couple purchased a farm in Shaftsbury, Vermont, where they enjoyed spending time together.
“Being married to a doctor isn’t easy and you give up a lot,” Hart said. “When Joe and I were at the farm we always had such a good time. He was a workaholic and he told me I taught him how to relax.”
Lillian Reed covers breaking news for The Baltimore Sun. She joined the paper in 2018 after covering education in Utah for the Salt Lake Tribune. Prior to that, she spent three years as a local government and investigative reporter for The Evening Sun newspaper in Hanover, Pennsylvania, and occasionally for its sister paper, the York Daily Record.
I am one of The Sun's obituary reporters and have been writing them since the early 1990s. I attended Emerson College in Boston and wrote for Boston Magazine. I also was the author for nearly 20 years of The Sun's Back Story column.