For nearly 40 years, Dr. James Mahoney saw his patients through the most challenging events New York City faced.
He worked on the frontlines of University Hospital in Brooklyn, helping patients weather the AIDS and crack epidemics. As the New York Times reports, he was at the “chronically underfunded” state-run hospital through the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Sandy. The coronavirus crisis was no different.
At 62 years old, many of Mahoney’s peers had already retired. Those who were still working stopped seeing patients during the pandemic, concerned about their own vulnerabilities to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Mahoney himself would ultimately not survive it. Mahoney died of the virus he had worked tirelessly to fight against on April 27, leaving University Hospital without one of its most beloved leaders.
According to the Times, there is still no comprehensive data on the infection and mortality rates among those working the frontline in New York City’s hospitals—doctors and nurses as well as hospital staffers—but it’s clear the pandemic has taken a toll on the city’s essential health care workers in ways it may not soon recover from.
To hear Mahoney’s colleagues tell it, he was himself an institution at the hospital. There was his uncompromising work ethic: the Times reports that, during the height of the pandemic, Mahoney would work day shifts at the intensive care unit at University hospital, then work nights at Kings County Hospital Center across the street.
This didn’t include his telemedicine sessions, which he would conduct with his regular patients from his home. He wanted to make sure they were taking the proper precautions to protect themselves: washing their hands, wearing masks.
Mahoney made it a point to attend to the sickest patients, despite his age and vulnerability to the virus, he was “always at the bedside where it was most dangerous,” writes the Times.
This is important in any hospital, but it’s especially important during a pandemic when members of the frontline staff have been asked to perform heroic feats without the protection they deserve. But Mahoney’s patients were themselves among the most vulnerable to the virus—University Hospital serves primarily low-income, black residents in Brooklyn.
With his death, the hospital loses a guiding light. Mahoney was not just a critical care physician, but a professor at the hospital’s teaching college who exercised as much care with residents as he did his patients.
“As a young black man, I looked at this guy and said to myself, ‘Twenty years from now I want to be like him,’” Dr. Latif A. Salam, who works in internal medicine at University Hospital, told the Times. “When a black medical student, a black resident sees him, he sees a hero. Someone that you can be one day. He’s our Jay-Z.”
“There were people who were really reluctant to go into the rooms, and you could understand why,” Mahoney’s boss, Dr. Robert Foronjy, told the Times. “He saw another human being in need, and he didn’t hesitate to help.”
“One of the sad stories of this pandemic is that we’re losing people that we couldn’t afford to lose.”