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The man who won’t let him forget

Isolated in a hospital, a veteran firefighter on a South Florida COVID unit takes a call that hits like a gut punch.

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Lieutenant David Anderson, middle, poses with his crew in front of the Miami Beach Fire Department’s COVID-19 truck, which has been specially designated to handle potential coronavirus calls.

Courtesy of David Anderson

SALT LAKE CITY — Except for the cot where he lies and the plug-in fan whirring beside him, David Anderson’s room is empty. He brought the cot himself, ready for two weeks in isolation, but now he can’t sleep. He grabs a can and cracks it open. Even for a wide-shouldered firefighter with age spots sprouting on his well-built forearms, it’s hard to sleep after a day like today.

The 54-year-old has done this work for 20 years. Right now, he’s part of the COVID squad in Miami Beach, Florida, isolated in a special unit at the Mt. Sinai Medical Center. He’s seen a lot, responding to fires and heart attacks and crime scenes. But today he took a call that “will stand out” for the rest of his life.

The man first called in about a week earlier, worried that he might have COVID-19. David had just started working with the COVID unit. He’d volunteered, thinking it would be safer for his family, keeping him away when he risked exposure on duty and affording him the best protective gear.

So David zipped up palm-lined Alton Road in a blocky red rescue truck toward Station 4, near North Beach, near the outer reaches of his range. He drove without a siren, reserved for only the most serious emergencies. 

The man walked down to the truck on his own. “A good sign,” David recalls. David wore an N-95 mask, goggles, a protective visor, a wrinkled blue gown and yellow gloves. No need to take a chance. He’d wear a white full-body suit for a respiratory or cardiac arrest.

The man’s vitals — blood-oxygen, blood pressure, temperature — all seemed normal except for a slight fever, less than 100 degrees. His lungs sounded clean. He was younger than David. 

David told him to stay home, to self-isolate, and to call if his condition worsened. He wasn’t in a high-risk group, David explained, and without evidence that he had it, he’d be better off at home than in the hospital.

Yesterday, the man called again. David rolled back up Alton Road, arriving after the local paramedics from Station 4. “I think this guy needs to go,” one of them said. David recognized the man, but he seemed different. Weaker. Coughing more. His fever had jumped to about 101 or 102. His blood-oxygen level had fallen, from 99% saturation to 94%. 

In the truck on the way to Mt. Sinai, David put a mask on the man and placed a towel over his face, hoping to tamp the virus down. The man could talk fine, telling David his name and info. “I hope you feel better,” David said before turning him over to the doctors. “Thanks,” the man answered, wheezing. 

Today, David got another call. The man is dead.

So David lies awake, after a 12-hour shift, wondering what to make of the virus he’s chased up and down South Florida’s shores. His 88-year-old mother will get it — and recover — in the coming weeks. How can it claim someone younger than himself, in good health, and spare his aging mom?

David’s two-week turn on COVID service is almost up. He’s been away from his family, and he’ll stay away for two more weeks, self-quarantining to protect them. He’ll have plenty of time to ponder the virus, and the man who won’t let him forget.