For the last two decades, Rasheen Peppers has kept the streets of New Jersey’s largest city safe. He’s a lieutenant in the fugitive unit for the Newark Police Division.
There were days his wife would ask him not to go somewhere—to stay in and be safe.
These days, he’s the one who is asking her.
His wife, Iris Peppers, is a nurse at Holy Name Medical Center, the hospital at the center of the state’s coronavirus outbreak.
“I said to my wife, ‘So why don't you just not go and maybe apply for unemployment?’” Rasheen, 47, said. “And she said to me, ‘Listen. I understand. But I have to go. Those nurses need me. They need relief.’”
He says that’s the same response he used to tell her.
“Now that the shoe is on the other foot, she has regurgitated everything that I would have said to her,” Rasheen said. “I'm proud of her, that she's taken that stand.”
“She's like a superwoman,” he added.
For the Peppers family in Newark, the coronavirus pandemic has completely ripped through every aspect of their lives. It’s taken the lives of people they work with and people they love—and redefined their jobs as first responders.
“It's just been a scary phenomenon,” Iris, 41, said. “We're seeing people age 19 that are being intubated.”
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More than 100 people have died of COVID-19 at Holy Name, a hospital in hard-hit Teaneck, a six-square-mile suburb in the northern end of the state. About 2,000 patients have tested positive for the illness and 200 remain hospitalized so far.
“It's definitely very taxing to your emotions, to your spirits and everything else. You really at that point in time, you're just depending on your co-workers for moral support,” Iris described.
She said the hardest part is watching her patients die alone. And then having to call a family member to deliver the bad news.
“They can't touch, they can't feel, they can't be there. They can't say that last goodbye, give that last kiss,” she said. “That's tough. I've never had panic attacks and I'm having them now.”
There are good days, though, like when a patient recovers and is discharged. At least 400 patients have been released from the hospital. Iris says the staff celebrates every time—funneling all their hope and relief into loud cheers and applause.
A spokeswoman from Holy Name says they also play the theme song from the film Rudy when a patient leaves.
Iris said she has a whole routine when she gets home to avoid getting anyone sick. She takes off her work clothes in the garage, puts it in a bag and slips on a clean robe and clean sandals before she even steps foot in the house, where her three kids are home from school and college.
But she’s not the only essential worker at home and not the only one at risk.
Rasheen started developing COVID-19 symptoms a few weeks ago. And then, he tested positive for the disease. He thinks he likely got it on the job.
“We went to a lot of people’s homes. We interact with a lot of people,” he said.
Rasheen self-isolated in the bedroom while Iris slept in the living room. But she monitored him like she would any patient.
“She had me text her what my blood pressure was, what my oxygen levels were, what my heart rate was,” Rasheen said. He said he had the usual run of high fever, chest pains and chills, but also felt a debilitating exhaustion.
After a few weeks of rest, he recovered. He never had to go to the hospital.
Two of his fellow officers in the department, though, died from COVID-19: 51-year-old criminal intelligence analyst Daniel Francis and 59-year-old special officer Tolbert A. Furr.
Across the city, there are more than 3,800 cases and 231 people have died. Statewide, the death toll has climbed past 4,000.
“I'd been exposed to many traumatic events. This has to be one of the top ones,” Rasheen said. He worries most about his wife and the constant trauma she’s living through. “Just to have to see my wife come home and cry, sit at the table and cry like in hopelessness."
“If people were able to see the effects that not only corona is having on the population, but the effect that it’s having on the people that have to serve those that are sick, that is going to be everlasting," he pointed out. "This is something that's not gonna go away.”
Rasheen’s mother, who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, needed dialysis, and was wheelchair bound, also tested positive for COVID-19 just as he was recovering from the virus.
“I can’t even be there for my mother. I can't do it. I’m my mother's only child, I can't be there to support her,” he said. “It’s inevitable you’re going to know someone you love that’s going to have this disease.”
Rasheen thought she was getting better after he was able to talk to her for 10 minutes on the phone. She was sitting up and seemed to be responding to the treatment.
“She's tough as nails,” he said. “Toughest person I know.”
Rasheen’s mother passed away last week. She was 64.