"I believe she passed away," said a relative who led the family's increasingly frantic search. "But where?"
The emergency medical technicians who rushed into Maria Correa's room in protective gear found a pulse. They told the family in Queens that they were taking her to Jamaica Hospital Medical Center, one of many health care facilities in New York City overwhelmed by the coronavirus outbreak.
But when her family called the hospital the next day to check on her condition, they were told she was not there.
For a week, family members called the fire department, other hospital offices and the emergency medical service that had picked her up, near death, from her home in Woodhaven on the last Monday in March.
But Correa, 73, was nowhere to be found.
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The family's plight starkly illustrated how the coronavirus pandemic has stressed the city's hospitals and emergency response system in ways never seen before, further stretching an already-taxed health care system. Calls to 911 are pouring in at record numbers. Hospitals are running out of masks, doctors and nurses are getting sick, and normal standards of care are giving way to triage strategies more akin to a war zone than a cosmopolitan city.
The blunt impact of such shortages has fallen on families like Correa's, who have struggled to navigate a system in crisis. Queens has been the hardest-hit borough, with more than 23,000 positive cases — nearly 5,000 more than the next-highest count, in Brooklyn, as of Monday evening.
Correa's disappearance began with a 911 call placed March 30, just after 3pm, according to records of the 911 call provided by the family.
They had already been grieving. The week before, Correa's daughter-in-law had died in the same house, falling into a diabetic shock after suffering for a week with vomiting and exhaustion. She had not been tested for the coronavirus, but the family suspected that she had it.
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Now, all five members of the household felt ill. Correa had developed a cough that morning. She was a diabetic and a cancer survivor, and her condition was rapidly worsening.
Julian Escobar, Correa's son, was in a state of shock, said his stepdaughter, Janeth Solis. He had lost his wife the week before. Now he was losing his mother. To identify her, Escobar had given the emergency workers his own name and a medicine bottle with his mother's name on it before they took her away, Solis said.
"I believe she passed away," said Solis, who led the family's increasingly frantic search for Correa from her bedroom in the Bronx, where she was isolated with coronavirus-like symptoms. "But where?"
She added: "If she went to Jamaica Hospital, don't they have cameras who show who goes in and out? Isn't there paperwork to show when she arrived?"
Hoping for help, Solis reached out last week to The New York Times, which contacted Jamaica Hospital on her behalf Monday morning.
The hospital said in a statement to The Times on Monday that it could not find a patient with Correa's name or birth date: May 12, 1946. The hospital declined to comment further, citing medical information privacy laws.
The suffering at Correa's compact, three-story house in Woodhaven started in late March. Amparo Holguin, Solis' mother who also lived there, had felt sick for about a week with gastrointestinal symptoms. She went to an urgent care facility, where, despite her elevated heart rate, blood pressure and temperature, a doctor gave her a diagnosis of simple gastroenteritis and prescribed antibiotics, according to paperwork from that visit. There was no mention of coronavirus.
By the following afternoon, March 24, Holguin, also a diabetic, could not recognize family members. She was talking about "God and gibberish," Solis said. She was breathing heavily, so they made a pot of steam to ease her airways. Then her blood sugar spiked and she collapsed in the living room.
Solis, 49, was instructed by a 911 dispatcher to give her mother CPR as they waited for an ambulance. Holguin could not be revived. Her body lay in the living room until 11pm that night, Solis said, when they were lucky enough to find a funeral home to take her away.
Two days later, Solis developed chills and was convinced it was Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Still, the family decided to hold a small funeral for Holguin that Saturday. People gathered in groups of less than 10 at a funeral home, maintaining physical distance and wearing masks. Amid the crisis, they felt blessed that the funeral home had let them use the room for an hour.
By then Correa had also started feeling sick. She developed a cough during the morning of March 30, and Solis' aunt went to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription for her. When the aunt opened her bedroom door that afternoon, Correa was not responding.
The ambulance arrived quickly and technicians were able to detect a pulse. "Let's hope for the best," one of the paramedics said, according to Solis, adding they were headed to Jamaica Hospital.
The next day, when Jamaica Hospital said no one under the name of Maria Correa was there, the family was shocked. Solis said she circled back with the emergency medical service, which insisted that the ambulance had gone to Jamaica and had not been diverted.
After days of calls, a man in the hospital admissions office said that no unidentified patients at the hospital matched Correa's description, Solis said. He advised her to call other hospitals in Queens.
Solis and a friend started calling around, at one point involving the office of a City Council member, Adrienne Adams. They made a missing persons flyer with her picture and posted it on social media, reminiscent of the flyers that were posted around the city after September 11.
"If you work at a hospital and have seen Maria, please call or message me ASAP," it said. "Family is distraught."
The family assumed Correa, a mother of four and grandmother of 10 who emigrated from Colombia about 20 years ago, had died. But without the body, there could be no closure.
"We want to just lay her down to rest and just grieve," Solis said.
On Monday, shortly after The Times began an inquiry, there was a breakthrough. An unidentified woman who had died March 30 was in the hospital morgue, a hospital worker told Escobar by phone.
There had been a critical error made when paramedics — overwhelmed by the high volume of 911 calls — transported her to the hospital, said a person familiar with the dispatch records.
On the patient intake form, Correa's name had been listed by paramedics as Julian Escobar, her son's name.
Escobar, still sick and weak himself and wearing a mask, drove to the hospital at 10am Tuesday to identify his mother's body.
They showed him a photograph. It was her, Solis said. She had died on the same day she had arrived at the hospital.
"I'm glad my mom can now rest in peace," Escobar said in a statement released by his stepdaughter.
Solis, who works in hospital administration at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan, said she felt less angry than she did relieved that Escobar could now mourn his mother as she had been mourning hers. She said she believed everyone was trying to do their best in a broken, overwhelmed system.
On March 30, more than 7,000 calls were made to 911, according to one EMS office. Typically, the system sees about 4,000 911 calls a day.
"I think with the madness, they were just rushing through it," she said of whoever had swapped Correa's name for her son's. Correa's body will be cremated, she said, and the ashes sent to her siblings in Colombia.
"It's like in so many things," she said. "This Covid-19 has just made this world so crazy."
Written by: Sharon Otterman and Ali Watkins
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES