A New Hampshire doctor came to N.Y. to save lives. The co-op board told him to get lost.

“I guess they’re afraid of you bringing this virus with you,” the superintendent said.

Dr. Richard Levitan in front of Bellevue Hospital in New York.
Dr. Richard Levitan in front of Bellevue Hospital in New York. –Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

NEW YORK — At the end of seven hours in mask, gown and gloves at Bellevue Hospital Center on Monday, Dr. Richard Levitan finally had a chance to look at his phone.

Levitan, an emergency physician who lives in northern New Hampshire, had volunteered to work for 10 days at Bellevue, in Manhattan, as coronavirus patients besieged New York City hospitals. Monday was his first shift there.

A text had arrived from his older brother, who was letting him use an apartment on the Upper West Side. It read: “Hey Richard — We are so proud of you and your heroism. I hate to be the bearer of bad news but looks like our apartment building doesn’t want you staying in our apt.”

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The building’s board of directors wanted him out.

That took a minute to sink in.

On the one hand, Levitan was answering the state’s urgent plea for help in the worst public health crisis in decades.

On the other, his brother was dealing with the idiosyncratic creature known as a New York City co-op, run by a board of apartment owners. Within their four walls, co-ops are tiny nation-states, like thousands of Vatican cities inside the five boroughs.

So, while Levitan was working to save the lives of strangers, his brother was pleading with his neighbors on the board to let his sibling lay his head in the apartment. He got nowhere. The board had heard what he was doing and did not want him around.

That kind of thing is rampant and emerges in many shapes, if rarely so outrageously as the shunning of a medical volunteer. Governors were talking about pulling over cars with New York plates and people in rural areas were mad about city residents who had fled to their second homes. In the city, people want to know if anyone in their building has tested positive, though with the virus so widespread, the only safe course is to assume that some neighbor has it or had it, and to take precautions.

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Fear can make ordinary people turn valorous or villainous or just unattractive.

As it happens, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo implored medical volunteers around the country to come to New York, he might have been speaking directly to Levitan.

Born in New York City, Levitan, 58, trained at Bellevue under Lewis R. Goldfrank, a towering, pioneering figure in emergency medicine. Levitan later practiced in Philadelphia and became a teaching guru on managing the human airway — including performing the tricky but vital task of intubation, threading a breathing tube into people who are not getting enough oxygen.

The coronavirus assaults the lungs.

“This is the airway challenge of the century,” Levitan said. “I’m an airway guy. I’m not going to sit this one out.”

On Saturday, he emailed the Four Seasons Hotel, which had recently announced that it would provide rooms for visiting medical workers. But the hotel replied that it was not yet ready for bookings and that when it was, they would be managed by “local medical associations.”

So, Levitan turned to his older brother and his family, who were out of town and have an apartment in the West 60s near Central Park. They arranged with the building to have a key waiting for him.

When Levitan arrived Saturday, he said he was handed a sheet listing the co-op’s rules for the pandemic — one family at a time in the elevator, dog walkers must be met in the lobby and so on. Near the top, it said: “No one except building residents; family members; nannies and home health care aides will be allowed into the building.”

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Though it has nearly 300 apartments, the building was quiet. “The place is a ghost town,” Levitan said. “Anybody with money has left.”

He chatted casually with the doorman about why he was in town. Then he was off to the field of battle.

Bellevue and its emergency room have physically changed since Levitan trained there, but he knew the ground. “I walked in and 10 minutes later we were doing an intubation and putting someone on a ventilator,” he said. Virtually every new patient had the coronavirus.

The disease is “a slow-moving MCI,” or mass casualty incident, in which the number of patients overwhelms medical resources, Levitan said. Health systems are often ready for a bombing or tornado, but now face a siege that could last months.

Back at the apartment building Monday evening, he confirmed the news from his brother: The doorman told him that he was not allowed in, and called the superintendent. Levitan video-recorded the conversation.

“You’re telling me I’m not welcome to stay in this apartment?” Levitan asked.

“I’m afraid, doctor, that is not my decision, unfortunately, but that is the situation, unfortunately,” the superintendent responded, sounding miserable.

“Why is that?”

“I guess they’re afraid of you bringing this virus with you,” the superintendent said.

Levitan got his belongings and found another place. He wondered how many people in the building he had been barred from were already infected. “I came from rural New Hampshire where my risk was very low,” he said.

When asked by The New York Times about the episode, the building’s manager would not comment, but offered to pass on an inquiry to the board. No one replied to that, or to phone messages and emails left with board members.

“In war, there are a million stories of people’s behavior” going bad, Levitan said.

He asked a favor on behalf of his brother and family, who were concerned that the little nation-state of the co-op could retaliate for his interview if the family ever tries to sell the apartment.

“Could you leave the building address out?” Levitan asked.

Under the circumstances, it seemed like a worry to take seriously.



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