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The lives of transit workers: Trauma and constant dread

When the coronavirus engulfed New York, it pummeled the transit workforce: So far, 131 transit workers have died from the virus and over 4,000 have tested positive, making the Metropolitan Transportation Authority one of the hardest-hit government agencies in New York.

For many, the pandemic has left an indelible mark. Pan Chan, a bus driver, moved out of his family’s home for months to shield his wife and children. Sally Lutchman, a train conductor, worried that she might have infected her husband, who was hospitalized with COVID-19 for months.

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Cesar Torres Jr., a second-generation bus operator, watched his father die.

Now, as riders trickle back, these workers are facing the prospect of a second wave — even as they are coping with the trauma from the peak of the outbreak.

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Before the coronavirus, Sally Lutchman’s life read like a love story.

The tale began one Friday night in 2006, when a handsome, smiling stranger caught her eye at a club in Queens. She was 35 and jumping from job to job, but was a regular at this particular joint. That night she and the man, Kris Knight, shared a dance-floor dalliance that left them both breathless.

Three weeks later, they went on a proper date. Before long, they fell in love and sank into a new life together. She found stable work at the MTA and his business installing garage doors grew. Soon they had two boys, Scott and Logan, and a bustling home on Long Island.

The first signs of the illness arrived on March 11, when Knight, an otherwise healthy 49-year-old, came home complaining of a splitting migraine and chills. He developed a fever that worsened over the next 11 days before he was admitted to Long Island Jewish Medical Center and placed on a ventilator.

In the weeks that followed, the virus ripped through Lutchman’s family. On the same day that Knight was admitted, Lutchman’s mother was also hospitalized with COVID-19. Then her sister’s parents-in-law both died from coronavirus complications, one after the other.

Even Lutchman, 48, had tested positive, raising a guilty fear that she had unknowingly spread the virus to her family.

To stop and absorb any one of these events could crush a person. So Lutchman lived in a state of constant motion: She sped through underground tunnels in her train’s operating booth, sprinted to keep up with her children and ran her husband’s business on the weekends.

Every day, she called the hospital to check in with her husband’s doctors and pleaded with God in 20 minutes of prayer.

“Oh, St. Joseph, hear my prayers,” she murmured while kneeling on cold floor tiles, a Bible sprawled open in front of her. “Oh, St. Joseph, pray for me.”

Then on April 20, around 9:30 p.m., the hospital’s number flashed across her phone’s screen. A doctor explained that Knight had gone into cardiac arrest and had been resuscitated through CPR.

Her sister’s parents-in-law had both received CPR at the hospital, she thought. Days later, they were dead.

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The hours that followed were murky: She remembers falling to the floor. She remembers calling her sister. She remembers a flood of tears, gasps for breath and her heartbeats reverberating through her chest.

“I literally felt like I was trapped in a dark tunnel without any light,” Lutchman said.

The next morning, Knight was put on a ventilator for a second time. Because pandemic precautions barred relatives from the hospital, Lutchman video-called him whenever she could, often with their two boys.

After battling the virus for three months, Knight finally recovered. At home, Lutchman prepared for an uncertain chapter in their life: Knight would need a chair to use in the shower, a toilet seat with arm rails and months of physical therapy.

But as she drove to pick him up from a recovery center where he spent a month after being released from the hospital, the stress seemed to fade. Over FaceTime, Knight coyly asked Lutchman if she was dressed up to go meet someone important. “Yeah, I’ve got a date with this guy,” she said, smiling.

Lutchman stifled tears the moment the two reunited. Embracing his thin frame, she whispered, “I love you.”

Ninety days are crossed off a calendar hanging below a windowsill. Above it, a faint light filters into the basement apartment. The space is sparse, but signs of the pandemic abound: There are stacks of soap, toothbrushes to scrub fingernails and a table with water bottles and ginger to make immune-boosting tea.

When Pan Chan, 44, a bus operator, moved into the basement of his home in April, he assumed he would live there for a few weeks. The fear of becoming infected on the job and spreading the virus to his parents, wife and five children consumed him.

Living apart from them would help to keep them safe.

Without his usual family life, Chan kept busy to stave off the loneliness: He drove a B38 bus between Brooklyn and Queens, worked overtime cleaning the bus depot, bought groceries for his family and delivered the food in a socially distanced routine that he and his wife mastered.

But each night, he was back in the basement. Days bled into weeks that melted into months. The strokes of a black pen on his calendar — made diligently at each day’s end — offered the only contours to his self-imposed isolation.

“Relaxation is not part of my life anymore,” Chan said.

None of this was close to the life Chan imagined when he took a job at the MTA eight years ago.

After a decade of long days managing his parents’ Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn, he wanted a job that would let him spend more time with his wife, Winnie, and their children.

Working the morning shift at the depot made that possible for years — until the pandemic hit. He recounted the months that followed in three phases, each a new low of a seemingly bottomless decline.

It began on March 9 — eight days after the first case was confirmed in New York — when he decided to move into the basement. He had heard stories about the virus from relatives in China and was hoping to keep his family insulated.

About two weeks later, after some of his colleagues fell ill, Chan entered his phase two: He stopped ordering takeout lunches for fear they could be contaminated. Instead, his wife cooked him noodles and walked them a couple of blocks to where he stopped along his bus route. The ritual became a rare moment of intimacy between them.

His third — and worst — phase began in early April, on a day so grim he wrote “Challenging Day!” on his calendar. By then, dozens of his colleagues had fallen sick. One bus operator had died. Then the yellow strap on his MTA-issued N95 mask broke, and his supervisor refused to give him a new one.

“You’ve got to deal with it,” Chan recalled the bus dispatcher telling him.

Arriving home that night, he was unable to shake the sense that he was more at risk than he had realized. He told his wife that he now had to move into the basement of a rental property they owned nearby. It was the only way to fully protect the family, he said.

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Still, it crushed him when his daughter asked if he had moved out because he was angry with her, and if it would last forever.

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In June, as New York’s outbreak subsided, his wife had to return to work and the issues of self-isolation grew more complex. Eventually, she and Chan decided to live together in the basement of their family’s home.

Having his wife with him is a relief, but some days Chan still wonders how long they can endure this way of life. Then he looks at a note he scrawled the day he moved to the basement in March.

“I couldn’t allow myself to have any regrets,” he wrote. “Regrets are one of the hardest things to live with and also to die with.”

Cesar Torres Jr. described the chance encounter like a miracle.

For two years, he and his father, also a bus operator, had dreamed of crossing paths on the road. Then driving along Queens Boulevard one day in early March, Torres Jr. glanced at his left-side mirror and saw his father waving his arms wildly from the bus behind him. Pulling up next to each other at a red light, his dad shouted, “Finally, we meet!”

A minute later, the two men parted. A week later, his father fell sick. A month later, he was dead.

“We really didn’t think the virus would affect us like that, the way it has,” Torres Jr., 34, said. “We were wrong.”

Since Torres Jr.‘s childhood, he had seen his father behind a wheel, first as a yellow-cab driver and then as a bus operator. For years, Torres Sr. urged his son to join him at the transit agency until finally, in 2018, Torres Jr. became a bus operator.

The training was arduous, “like the military,” Torres Jr. said. But entering the world of public buses brought him closer to his father.

They talked by phone almost every night, sharing stories of odd on-the-job encounters and workplace gossip. Torres Jr. often asked for advice about navigating the famously bureaucratic MTA.

In March, as the first coronavirus cases were confirmed in the city, that role reversed. As the agency scrambled to issue safety guidelines for workers, Torres Sr. called his son to ask if he should block the front seats of his bus to better distance himself from passengers. They both should, Torres Jr. said — it would be safer that way.

Less than two weeks later, Torres Sr. started feeling sick. His breath was labored. A fever came and went, then spiked again.

After a week, he called an ambulance, but the medics who came to his house said he would be better off at home. Two days later, he called his son around 1 a.m. and could only utter a few words before pausing to gasp for air. Torres Jr. called another ambulance.

The medics rushed his father to Mount Sinai Hospital of Queens. Torres Jr. paced outside the emergency room door, frantically text messaging with his father to see if the oxygen the doctors had given him was helping.

When his father’s condition worsened the next morning, Torres Jr. received another text: “No matter what happens, do whatever it takes to keep me alive.”

That night, Torres Sr. was intubated. The next day, his kidneys started failing. Less than 24 hours later, he had a heart attack and died.

After his father’s death, Torres Jr. stayed home alone for weeks trying to understand how the jubilant man he saw waving on Queens Boulevard just a month before was gone. Heartbroken, he pushed everyone close to him — his sister, his girlfriend, his grandparents — away.

As he grieved, Torres Jr. spent hours outside with a belt sander and angle grinder, carving a handle and welding a blade to turn into a kitchen knife for his grandmother who loves to cook. The knife, he hoped, would become a relic in memory of his father.

“He was gone too soon,” Torres Jr. said. “There is no reason why he should be forgotten.”

c.2020 The New York Times Company

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