Sometime that first night, after stacking another dead body into a refrigerated truck, Jim Mullen decided he wouldn’t tell his wife everything.
Gina is a worrier, and deep down he knew she didn’t agree with this. He had his own reasons for departing Dallas for New York on a volunteer nursing assignment April 3. But he hadn’t just left his wife alone to care for their 2-year-old daughter. Gina, a doctor, is terrified of the novel coronavirus, and Jim’s first critical care shift in four years would put him in what had become the epicenter of the pandemic. How would it change the family if Jim has the virus when he comes home? What if, in fact, he never does?
But here he was, on the first of 21 straight 12-hour nights, and before the emergency room doors opened at a hospital in the Bronx, an orientation leader welcomed newcomers to the “pits of hell.” Jim walked in anyway, and immediately saw a patient drooling blood onto his chest, heard oxygen monitors sounding alarms in every direction, felt something he hadn’t expected when he signed up three days earlier: fear.
“Maybe I should’ve stayed home,” he’d remember thinking, and around that time someone told him to move the two bodies upstairs and a third one in the ER.
He wheeled down the first of them, and one of two trucks had been locked because it was full. When he opened the second truck’s door, a pair of folded legs sprung toward him. There were so many body bags that he could barely step without grazing a hand, a leg, an ear. One of the zippers had failed, and when Jim looked down, he saw the face of a man who might’ve had a wife and daughter of his own.
He kept moving, looking forward to his call to Gina in a few hours. They’d agreed to talk every day as his workday ended and hers began. He already knew she’d ask what he’d seen.
And he’d tell her. He just wouldn’t say how it made him feel.
The phone rings as Gina drives to work, a long day at the hospital ahead, and she smiles when Jim answers. She starts with a mea culpa: He may have been right all these years. Indeed, she does steal his pillows at night.
“I may be right?” he says in his Boston accent.
“I’m gonna hurt you,” she says.
This is their morning routine now, and they’re speaking to each other from what seems like different worlds. Gina is in Dallas, a sprawling city with comfortable — and colorless, she says — suburbs. Jim is working in two hospitals in a compressed city that’s dense and chaotic — and stressful, he says — even under normal circumstances. They visited New York a few years ago for Gina’s birthday, though not this New York, and Jim wants his wife to know what might be headed to the Metroplex, where she’s the medical director of two large hospitals whose coronavirus peaks have yet to arrive.
“I see this as the future,” Jim will say later, in one of several interviews. “This is what your city is going to look like if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do.”
In their marriage, Gina is the meticulous planner and Jim is the carefree tough guy. She contemplates their future and braces for threats; he’s more concerned about Netflix or the New England Patriots. Theirs is a relationship highlighted by differences, permanent and temporary, though at this moment there is one paralyzing but unspoken thing they have in common: Both are afraid Jim won’t make it home.
“Anyways,” Gina finally gets around to saying, “how was the night?”
It was bad, he says. More intubations. More deaths. He tells her about the treatments that seem to work and the ones that don’t. If a patient goes on a ventilator, he’ll say, he or she doesn’t usually come off. He doesn’t tell her that, in the heat of battle, sometimes doctors and nurses perform the high-risk treatments they’re told to avoid: cardiopulmonary resuscitation, high-flow oxygen therapy, bilevel positive airway pressure — procedures that can eject the virus into the air, where it can linger for hours.
More than 9,000 health-care workers in the United States have tested positive for coronavirus and 27 have died as of April 9, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But officials acknowledge that is an undercount because many sick health-care workers were never tested.
Jim doesn’t tell Gina about how often he accidentally touches a patient without wearing gloves, and after four years of marriage, they know the day-to-day maintenance of a relationship — crisis or not — sometimes hinges on the things you don’t say.
“I’m just scared and overwhelmed,” Gina will say later in an interview, thoughts she has shielded from Jim. “And am I angry that I feel like that? That you now have made me have way more anxiety than I had before you left?"
On this morning, they keep talking. He yawns, and she approaches the Dallas VA Medical Center. Gracie rode her toy Peloton bike today, Gina says. What a sweetheart, Jim says. You think that no matter what, she says, and speaking of their little girl, this week she learned a new word: “coronavirus.”
The day before he left, Jim and Gina drove by their dream house. It had recently been listed for sale, has room for a brother or sister for Gracie, and is right on the TPC Four Seasons golf course.
Jim didn’t have to get on the plane the next morning. He could stay here, and they could consider making an offer, not just on a house but for a future — a big family, an agreeable life, an early retirement with a year-round cruise around the world — that, at least to Gina, felt so warm and cozy.
But not to Jim, who had been restless. He’d flip on the news and see a worsening crisis in the nation’s biggest city, and what did it say about him if people were dying and he’d spent his morning at the driving range?
They’d argued lately, and Gina wasn’t even sure why. He snapped at her when she reminded him yet again that it was March and their Christmas tree was still up. He wanted to be left alone, to sit on his couch and watch TV, to let his mind wander.
“I’ve always been a daydreamer,” he said.
Jim is 37, but he’s the same kid who fantasized about being a cop and taking down the bad guys. He’s the same college student who wanted to become Gordon Gekko or “The Wolf of Wall Street.” The same man who’d entered nursing, hoping to rush into a crowded emergency room and save the day.
Gina, 33, has been at Jim’s side during his search for career fulfillment, and she supported him four years ago when he gave up nursing to enroll in law school. He’d become almost addicted to the adrenaline rush of critical care, that feeling of being overwhelmed but pushing through it, the camaraderie of the medical staff. Jim and Gina had met at a hospital in Atlanta, occasionally worked together and sometimes went drinking after overnight shifts, and when he’d proposed to her, it had been on the hospital’s helipad.
But now he was going to become Frank Branson, the legendary Texas trial attorney, and effect real change. Jim graduated, passed the bar exam, took a job as a personal injury lawyer. He found himself interpreting medical charts and reacting to events that had already happened, rather than preventing or changing anything. He kept searching.
“Maybe those nights when he was just watching TV at 11 o’clock,” Gina said, “he was looking for purpose.”
Then he saw New York falling, and he called three Dallas hospitals offering to help. Only one called him back, to say it wasn’t interested. Jim hadn’t put on scrubs since 2016, and he thumbed through old nursing books to reacquaint himself with infusion drips and intravenous pumps. He contacted several staffing agencies, he says, telling them his nursing license remained active. Eventually, one found a place for him. His three-week contract arrived on a Tuesday, and he’d report to New York the following Friday.
Jim called Gina at work that day, saying they needed to talk. By the time she arrived home, kicking off her scrubs in the garage because of the remote possibility they’d been exposed to the virus, Jim had already made up his mind. New York needed nurses. It needed him.
“An obligation,” he’ll say later. “An opportunity to do something significant.”
Gina, alternating between confusion and awe, watched as her husband filled out life insurance forms. Together they wrote out their wills, something Jim had been putting off for years, and he sent the papers to a colleague at his law office. His boss asked Jim to promise he’d be gone no more than three weeks, but Jim wouldn’t commit.
He seemed so casual about what he was heading into, so fearless. If anything, that’s what frightened Gina. Jim isn’t great about washing his hands during flu season and doesn’t often use the hand sanitizer next to their front door. And Jim, who isn’t exactly diligent about household chores, is suddenly going to be careful in the hottest hot zone of a global pandemic?
On the first Friday of April, Jim hugged Gracie, who — other than a few days in February — had never been apart from her dad. Gina asked their au pair to take a photograph of the family together, perhaps for the last time, and she held back tears as the picture snapped.
Then she drove Jim to the airport in their Mercedes SUV, glancing at him again and again, wanting so badly to tell him not to go.
But she didn’t. She couldn’t be the reason he didn’t go save the day — especially with Gina preparing to fight the virus herself.
“It would break him down,” she says, “and then I would have to deal with a broken Jim.”
At the airport, they wore masks and pressed them together for a goodbye kiss. Gina stifled tears. Her plans were crumbling, and she watched as he disappeared into the terminal, secretly hoping he’d turn back.
Back in the SUV, Gina tried not to imagine a dramatically altered future: no dream home, no retirement cruise, no Jim.
“I just don’t want to explain to Gracie what heaven is,” Gina would say, but she suspected their daughter would grow up knowing her dad only through other people’s stories.
She drove away from the airport, merged onto the highway and took the exit for Las Colinas. But before she passed through the neighborhood’s entrance gate and Gracie saw her, Gina stopped the vehicle near a vacant building and cried.
A few days into Jim’s contract, he was so exhausted that when he returned to his hotel near Central Park, he pulled off his mask so quickly that the strap broke.
He told Gina, and later that day she dropped an N95 mask — along with a respirator, disinfecting wipes, antibiotic ointment and immunity-boosting vitamins — into a box. Then she raced to the package place before it closed and overnighted everything to his hotel.
Gina kept trying to picture the nightly horrors Jim was seeing. He had never worked in these circumstances, under this pressure, in an environment this extreme. Though Jim was experiencing a worsening crisis, he continually tried easing his wife’s mind. He’d be fine, he kept telling her. You always say that, she kept telling him.
He told her about scraping his hand and not realizing he was bleeding, and Gina asked if he’d immediately washed it.
“Would it make you feel better if I said yes?” he said.
He didn’t tell her how scared he’d been that first night, or how he gradually became desensitized. The shifts passed, feeling less like a hellscape and more like a job, and Jim was concerned he was growing lax. He’d catch himself, usually too late, peeling an orange before washing his hands or forgetting to change his shirt after leaning against an elevator wall.
A few days in, he walked into the break room at the hospital. He bought a soda, twisted off the cap, and wiped off the bottle’s rim with his bare fingers — something he’d done many times. He stared at the bottle and calculated the odds. After a few minutes, he pressed the bottle to his mouth anyway.
Between their morning phone calls, Gina rotated between denial and reality. At the Veterans Affairs hospital, she interacts with combat veterans who experienced things they can’t unsee. Would this happen to her husband? Even if he physically made it home, would the Jim she knew die in a New York hospital?
“I think about it all the time,” Gina says, and she has recently found herself calling a therapist friend just to talk.
Jim, of course, insists he’ll be okay. But how, after falling in love with the rush of an emergency room, can he just return to his couch in the suburbs? Will Sunday brisket with the neighbors replace this feeling, especially for a man who has spent years trying to fill a void?
Jim tells Gina it’s getting better in New York. That the curve is bending. Fewer deaths, not as many body bags to stack, more people on the sidewalks and in the parks.
He doesn’t tell her that’s precisely what concerns him: that New Yorkers, and indeed many Americans, have decided they’re in the clear and are increasingly pressing for a return to normalcy. That, by the time Jim’s contract expires, cases here could spike again, leaving him no choice but to stay for however long the city needs.
He doesn’t tell her, at least not yet, that he doesn’t care what it costs him, that after so many jobs, he’s finally fulfilled. And though he wants to go home to Dallas, there’s some poetry in giving everything, including his life, for a cause bigger than himself.
“What better way to go out?” he says, though not to Gina. “No matter what happens, you’ll have fulfilled your obligation. I will have done something.”
He pauses, thinking about it.
“Thirty-seven years old,” he says, “and I’m still daydreaming.”
Not long ago, Jim was alone and opened the email app on his phone. “Gina. Letter to the love of my life,” he wrote in the subject box.
It was a note for his wife to read only in the event of Jim’s death, and in it, he’d write so many of the things he hadn’t told her. That he appreciated her. That he was sorry for not taking better care of himself and eating better. That he hadn’t lived long enough to provide the life Gina and Gracie deserved.
Being entirely honest at last, he confessed there was one thing he wasn’t sorry for: getting on the plane to New York.
“I had to do it,” he wrote.
He wanted to tell her to take care of Gracie, to spoil that little girl, to expect a percentage of his outstanding legal fees. He wanted to tell Gina that he wanted her to be happy, and that she should again pursue love. He’d keep typing, eventually sending the email to himself before sharing his login with the attorney who’d drafted their wills.
But before he finished, Jim wanted to tell Gina one last thing: Don’t repair the hole in the master bathroom wall. It should remain imperfect, just as he’d been.
“Look at it,” he wrote, “and remember what I was really like. A royal pain in the ass who loved the s--- out of you.”