On May 1, residents of Queens, together with friends and families, politicians and others, gathered by the hundreds at the Forest Park Bandshell to grieve those they lost to the COVID-19 virus. The event provided a community space, a place to come together to talk to one another and to share stories about their loved ones who died.
It was the Queens Covid Remembrance Day, a solemn day organized by the Queens Covid Remembrance Committee (QCRC) and by a national organization, Covid Survivors for Change, whose mission is to “find community in isolation and unite to demand a responsible, data-backed approach to pandemic prevention.” www.covidsurvivorsforchange.org
One family’s losses
Cathrine Solomon, RN, NYSNA member and oncology nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital, sits on the QCRC. She has experienced far more than her share of loss. Her mother, Estelita Atienza Solomon, RN, a retired head nurse from Wyckoff Heights Medical Center, died due to the virus on April 10, 2020. Her father passed away the month before, also from COVID-19. Her uncle died from the virus, on April 16, 2020. Cathrine was infected as well and continues to suffer the virus’s effect.
Queens resident and event organizer Brian Walter, who lost his father, John, to COVID, explained the day: “[M]any of us did not have that connection that often comes with losing someone—the funeral, the wake, the gathering. All that was taken from us.”
More than their share
For Cathrine, who is of Filipino descent, nursing is a family tradition. “I was influenced by nurses. They were my aunts and best friends. I have been around nursing all my life.” The Queens Covid Remembrance Day was “a busy day, an emotional day” for her.
As of February 11, 2021, an estimated 314 registered nurses had died due to the virus, 83 were of Filipino descent — more than a quarter of all RN deaths from COVID were Filipinos, according to National Nurses United. “It really hit me when a retired Filipino nurse went back to work and passed away,” said Cathrine. “We think of each other as a community.”
The body count is likely far higher. Only 18 states are providing infection figures for all healthcare workers.
The ceremony in Queens was extraordinarily moving. A dedication ceremony was held in the morning, rife with memories and cultural traditions. Families of the deceased brought bouquets of flowers and framed photographs.
More than 400 benches at the Forest Park Bandshell bore the names and images of residents of Queens who had died. The images were the work of a 16-year-old artist from New Jersey, named Hannah, who volunteered her services through Faces Of Covid Victims, a group she founded.
Others from NYSNA volunteered
Also there volunteering was NYSNA nurse Rhea Marie Villavicencio, RN, of Bellevue Hospital, as were Mount Sinai Lead Program Representative Anne Naguit, RN, and NYSNA Mount Sinai Representative Loraine Tucay. They, like Cathrine, are of Filipino descent. They gave us all a beautiful gift. Not only did they honor the dead, they brought healing to many.
Two installations from national organizations were on display. The Floral Heart Project, which seeks a national COVID-19 memorial to create “a living public memorial” was on display, as was the Yellow Heart Memorial, bearing the names of COVID victims from across the world. Lynwood Wichard, Administrative Vice President of the Transit Workers Union Local 100, pointed out a heart inscribed with the name Peter Petrassi from Queens, the first transit worker to die from the virus.
Cathrine organized a Tribute to Essential Workers, made up of photos and quotes along the pathway leading up to the Bandshell. At the end of the pathway an audio presentation looped the messages and stories from essential workers, all of whom were invited to participate. This was, in Cathrine’s words, “a gift for all of us.”
Turning loss into healing
The seven-hour proceeding, live-streamed and carried on Queens Public Television, concluded with a sunset vigil, a fitting memorial to the more than 3,000 Queens residents who we lost, a tribute to essential workers and a remembrance of those from around the world who died.
“There needs to be one of these in every community and every city in the world, not just Queens,” said Brian Walter.
Cathrine’s parents would be so proud. She turned profound loss into healing for others. That is what nurses do.