It’s as if the last day of the life of Dr. Joseph J. Costa, who headed the critical care unit at Mercy Medical Center, had been scripted by a Hollywood screenwriter.
The Bolton Hill resident died there early Saturday morning of COVID-19 surrounded by admiring colleagues and staff, and in a place that he loved and where he spent two decades doing what he enjoyed most in life — treating critically ill patients. He was 56 years old.
“Mercy let me stay with Joe, and there was a vigil in his room,” said David Hart, his husband of 28 years. “I think there must have been 20 colleagues — doctors, nurses, techs and a housekeeper in the room — and they all placed their blue-gloved hands on Joe and I put my cheek next to his and held him in my arms until he died around 4:45 a.m.”
Mr. Hart said a housekeeper knelt by Dr. Costa’s bed and “shook with grief when he died, and said, ‘I’m now losing my best friend.‘”
With Dr. Costa’s death came a harsh realization. “I kept thinking, now there is one less ICU doctor to care for pandemic patients in Baltimore,” said Mr. Hart, a retired restaurant owner.
“And 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. His memory will live on as an example to us all,” according to a joint statement from Sister Helen Amos, RSM, executive chair of the Mercy board of trustees, and hospital president and CEO, Dr. David N. Maine.
“I have a profound admiration and the deepest respect for Joe as a clinician, colleague and friend,” Dr. Maine said in a statement to the Mercy staff.
“Mercy Medical Center and the Mercy Family richly benefited from Joe’s wisdom, compassion, insight and thoughtful, ethical approach to his work and the families he served,” he said. “Joe was loved by the patients and staff. He will always hold a special place in our hearts and will remain an important part of the Mercy story.”
Said Mr. Hart: “He loved his job more than anything in the world. Joe gave of himself, his time, talent and treasure. He was a very egalitarian person who when he did the scheduling made sure he worked Thanksgiving and Christmas and when I would ask why, he’d say, ‘We don’t have children and these folks do.‘”
Mark R. Fetting, a Lake Falls resident and a Mercy Medical Center board member for nearly 15 years, said: “Never have I met a finer man and caring, competent doc. God is wailing with us over this tragic loss of Dr. Joe Costa, who was killed by the very disease he fought to treat on behalf of his patients. And for him to die is just so sad, and we will miss him terribly.”
Joseph John Costa, son of S. Richard Costa, an aeronautical engineer, and his wife, Barbara Ann La Guardia, a homemaker, was born in Adelphi and raised in Glenwood.
“Joe was a good kid growing up. He played Little League baseball and was a straight-A high school student through all four years,” his father said. “He had a great sense of humor and was fun to be around. He did a lot of chores around the house, he raked leaves and mowed the grass, and never complained. He never gave us any trouble.”
After graduating in 1982 from Glenelg High School, Dr. Costa earned a bachelor’s degree in 1986 from the University of Virginia and his medical degree in 1990 from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, where he had been a member of Alpha Omega Alpha and the Medical Honor Society.
“I don’t know what steered him toward medicine or his two sisters,” Mr. Costa said. “He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at UVA, maybe that had something to do with it, but he never mentioned why. I guess he just wanted to help people and he did touch so many.”
Dr. Costa completed a residency in internal medicine at the University of Maryland Medical Center where he was chief resident from 1994 to 1995. From 1993 to 1996, he completed a fellowship in pulmonary medicine, also at Maryland.
“I like having the feeling of having expertise in something,” Dr. Costa told The Baltimore Sun in a 1993 interview. “I like the idea of being someone who could be the definitive statement on a patient."
Dr. Costa also completed a three-year critical care fellowship in 1996 at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Baltimore. From 1992 to 1994, he was an assistant instructor in medicine at Maryland and from 1994 to 1998, was a clinical instructor in medicine, also at Maryland. He was a clinical assistant professor in medicine at Maryland from 1998 to 2018, and from 2018 until his death, was an adjunct assistant professor there.
Before coming to Mercy in 1997, Dr. Costa held positions at the Baltimore County Tuberculosis Clinic and the Veterans Medical Center.
From 2005 until his death, he was chief of the critical care division at Mercy. Other positions he held at the hospital were secretary-treasurer of the medical staff from 2010 to 2012; vice president of the medical staff from 2012 to 2014; and president of the medical staff from 2014 to 2016.
Kevin Parks, who worked for 26 years in the media office at Mercy and for the past four years has been a visual journalist at The Catholic Review, was a former patient of Dr. Costa’s.
“He was a rock-steady person who was always smiling and had a very comforting and welcoming demeanor. He was unassuming, not flashy, and very genuine,” said Mr. Parks, a Bel Air resident. “I was his patient when I had a brain tumor and was in the critical care ICU. Whether you were a colleague or patient, he was the same person. He was compassionate and wonderful to be around when I was sick, and he gave me the best he had.
“But, he was a very direct person and he was there to listen and had a wonderful bedside manner. I was heartbroken when I learned that he had died. He will not be easily replaced as there is only one Joe.”
Michael Green, an attorney, who was one of Mercy’s first COVID-19 patients, was unconscious for seven weeks, and it was his wife, Gail Green, a retired attorney, who spoke with Dr. Costa daily about her husband’s situation.
“We had to interact over the phone and he was so much of a human being than just a doctor,” Ms. Green, a Federal Hill resident, said. “He was warm and kind, and sometimes he’d call our son and say, ‘I’m here for you.' He was both the doctor and comfort giver, and he made it clear that we’re taking care of you. And he had a way about him that made you feel you weren’t bothering him.
Said Mr. Green: “It breaks our hearts that we can’t thank Joseph personally for what he had done for us.”
Mr. Hart and Dr. Costa met each other through a personal ad in the City Paper.
“There really was no internet in those days, and we met through the City Paper. We met, went for a beer on our first date at the Mount Washington Tavern and we’ve been inseparable for the last 28 years,” Mr. Hart said.
Dr. Costa was known for his quiet philanthropy.
“I was the extrovert and Joe was the quiet one. I love to garden and he'd sometimes get angry if I spent $200 on plants and then I’d look in the checkbook and see he had written a $3,200 check to pay a housekeeper’s daughter’s tuition. He was very quiet about the way he did things,” Mr. Hart said.
“Joe was a scientist who lived through his brain. He loved opera and played the piano so well, and for the last year and a half he learned to play the mandolin,” he said. “He was fluent in both German and Italian. For the last three years, he read mostly Italian works. He was a voracious reader, and our Bolton Hill home is filled with stacks and stacks of books.”
A year or so ago, the couple purchased a farm in Shaftsbury, Vermont, where they enjoyed relaxing and spending time together.
“Being married to a doctor isn’t easy and you give up a lot,” Mr. Hart said. “He’d work days and nights and 16-hour days, but when we were at the farm we always had such a good time. Joe was a workaholic and he told me I taught him to relax. He told me he was going to go back to Baltimore and give his year’s notice on July 1.”
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Many were unaware that for the past decade Dr. Costa had suffered from sarcoidosis, the growth of inflammatory cells in the lymph nodes and lungs.
“Basically, his lungs were deteriorating and he had trouble walking up stairs, but he kept on working” Mr. Hart said.
Dr. Costa began showing COVID-19 symptoms June 26 and was diagnosed with the disease the next day. He went to the hospital and then returned home, where he was placed on steroids. His last day of work was June 26, and he returned to the hospital by ambulance for good on July 1.
“Joe was the bravest man I ever knew,” his husband said.
Because of the pandemic, plans for a memorial Mass at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Mary Our Queen are incomplete.