In the first story of WBFO’s new series, “The Toll: Western New York Stories of Loss & Survival in a Pandemic,” reporter Kyle Mackie sheds light on one unusually strong relationship forged at the hospital bedside of a COVID-19 patient.
The coronavirus pandemic has infected more than 11,300 people across Western New York. The virus has also claimed the lives of at least 762 people in our region. WBFO’s “The Toll” will air weekly on Thursdays during Morning Edition in August and September, telling some of the personal stories behind those numbers.
For Pompea Disanto-Owens, the worst part of her early illness with COVID-19—before it put her in the hospital—was being isolated from her family.
“I mean, you can talk to your family, but nobody could actually come over or even saw me or any of it,” Disanto-Owens said. “Trust me, being 100% Italian, that's painful in itself.”
Disanto-Owens has lived in the Buffalo area since her family immigrated from Italy when she was 2 years old. She’s 64 now and lives in Tonawanda alone, but she has three adult children in the area. Of course, once she got sick, they couldn’t come over anymore. But they really started to get worried when she stopped answering phone calls and texts in mid-March.
“So, then my friends started calling my son or my daughter, and then my ex-husband came over and we went to the ambulance,” Disanto-Owens said. “Now, let me just say: I did go to the hospital prior to that and they sent me home.”
Unfortunately, her viral pneumonia only got worse, and by the time Disanto-Owens was admitted to the St. Joseph Campus of Sisters of Charity Hospital, she had to be intubated and put on a ventilator. She ended up being in an induced coma for about 10 days. But she survived.
“One of the physician assistants had called my daughter and said, 'You know, we want to stay in touch with your mom. We consider her a miracle.' So, you know, that in itself was like sort of mind boggling and emotional and very humbling and very, like, how do you deal with that? Who are you now? You know, what are you now?”
Disanto-Owens, a retired social worker, has been struggling with those questions ever since she was released from the hospital on April 15, after which she spent five days in a rehab facility. After getting home, she found herself wishing she had someone to talk to who truly understood what she had gone through. And then she remembered that phone call from the physician assistant.
“I couldn’t find him,” Disanto-Owens said, adding that she called Buffalo General Medical Center, the St. Joseph Campus and Buffalo Medical Group, all to no avail. However, she eventually got a lead through her primary care doctor. “I said, ‘Honestly, I think this guy is from Buffalo Medical Group. I would love for you to be able to find him for me.' And she did.”
Griffin Kramer, a physician assistant hospitalist with Buffalo Medical Group, said he remembers the moment he got a message asking for his phone number. “I was a little bit confused by that and she [Disanto-Owens’ doctor] said it was for Pompea and then I had to take a second and be like, ‘Oh jeez okay!’”
Physician assistant hospitalists function like primary care doctors at multiple hospitals in the area. Kramer said he helped care for Disanto-Owens during her last two days in the hospital, after she got out of the intensive care unit (ICU). He also got to discharge her at a time when he said there was very little good news coming out of the St. Joseph Campus, which served as Buffalo’s dedicated COVID-19 hospital from mid-March through early August.
“She’s the first person I got to successfully see go home and definitely a not-common story of someone being in the ICU as long as she was,” Kramer said.
When the pair finally got on the phone, it was cathartic—even though Disanto-Owens didn’t really remember Kramer because she was so heavily medicated at the hospital.
“Now, you talk about an emotional conversation with somebody I felt linked to without ever seeing this man, without ever knowing this man, but because I knew he was with me, I felt connected,” Disanto-Owens told WBFO through tears. “I, like, did not want to get off the phone with him. I felt like he was there with me, he knew me. He knew what I went through.”
In his recollection of their first phone call, Kramer said it meant more to him to hear a personal “thank you” from one of his earliest COVID-19 patients than all of the general, sometimes celebrity-backed “thank you health care heroes” advertisements that flooded television and social media in the early months of the pandemic.
“Lots of other people had their hands and hearts in getting her home and I got to be the lucky one to get the credit in her eyes, but there's so many people who had a big part in that,” Kramer said. “But that was pretty cool. I was pretty emotional when she called too. I'm not the most emotional person but hearing her over the phone and how she was kind of breaking up on the phone, that made me feel quite similarly too.”
Disanto-Owens said that besides thanking Kramer sincerely, she didn’t know what else to say. She then remembers Kramer responding, “‘You know, Pompea, you have thanked me. You survived.’”
Kramer is 27 and still in the early years of his medical career. And just like his first patient ever, he said he doesn't expect to forget Disanto-Owens anytime soon. “Especially the first person to be discharged [of my COVID-19 patients], she'll be somebody 100% I'll remember, I'll expect for the rest of my life.”
For her part, Disanto-Owens said saying goodbye to Kramer was like sending one of her own kids off to college. Kramer laughed when asked about that by WBFO and said it’s definitely not as bad as that.
“I pretty frequently make a joke with the patients that I see, like, 'Hope I don't see you again, and if I do, it's like at Wegmans and not here,’” he said. “The goodbye is a good goodbye.”