Court officer makes life-or-death judgment in COVID-19 fight

Anibal Ortiz, a court officer, lost part of his arm after battling COVID-19 in a Bronx hospital. (Photo: Courtesy of Anibal Ortiz)

BY REUVEN BLAU. This story was first published on May 7, 2020 by THE CITY.

Anibal Ortiz survived 21 days in a Bronx hospital — and five of them on a ventilator — to beat COVID-19 and the odds.

But shortly after getting home, he faced an excruciating decision: allow doctors to amputate his left arm from the elbow or take a chance on losing more of the limb and possibly his life.

“I was in pain like you can’t believe,” Ortiz, 53, recalled. “I wanted to save as much of the arm as possible.”

Nearly a month earlier, Ortiz thought he just had a bad cough.

As the number of coronavirus cases began to grow in New York City, the veteran court officer kept working at his post screening people at the magnetometers before they entered the Harlem Community Justice Center.

The cough finally became too much and he went out sick in mid March.

A few days later, his daughter became so concerned with his suddenly deteriorating state, she called an ambulance to take him from his Co-op City apartment to Montefiore Medical Center. He was diagnosed with COVID-19 and his condition steadily worsened.

“They were giving me oxygen, but my breathing was labored to say the least,” he recalled.

Doctors decided the only way to save his life would be to put him on a ventilator to allow his body to recover from the virus.

‘It was Terrifying’

Ortiz doesn’t recall much, but has been told he fought against being sedated.

“I remember they put me under, it was terrifying,” he said, noting that he frequently hallucinated, in part due to the morphine he received.

After five days, he began to breathe on his own and was released from the hospital April 9. But, though, he couldn’t understand why: His left hand had turned black during his sedentary time in his medically induced coma.

Two days later, he raced back to the hospital in agony where doctors, after a series of tests, discovered a blood clot and suggested partial amputation.

A Montefiore spokesperson declined to comment, citing medical privacy laws.

Now Ortiz is back home, happy to be alive as he begins the long recovery process.

On Wednesday, it took him 15 minutes just to make a sandwich as he struggled to keep his balance and open the bags of meat and cheese.

His two adult children and a neighbor take turns changing the bandage on what remains of his left arm.

Meanwhile, Ortiz takes 16 pills a day to thin his blood, ease his pain and deal with other ailments.

“I slept three hours last night,” he told THE CITY Thursday. “I suffer from insomnia and panic attacks and never had them before.”

Courts Hit Hard

All told, 176 court staffers statewide out of 16,000 employees have reported testing positive for the virus, according to Office of Court Administration spokesperson Lucian Chalfen. Three judges have died.

Denis Quirk, president of the Court Officers Association, believes the number is higher. About 60 court officers out of the 1,500 assigned to the New York City area alone are currently out sick with COVID-19 symptoms, he said.

One court officer is partially on a ventilator and another recently came off one, Quirk added.

State courts, aside from those handling criminal cases, have largely shut down, and most essential proceedings are being handled via Skype. But each building requires a small crew of officers to provide security.

Some 188 court officers were on duty on Thursday, according to Quirk, who provided catered food to staffers in each borough. The union bought 5,000 N-95 masks, bottles of hand sanitizer,and face shields, Quirk added.

The sanitizer spray bottles are being used to clean magnetometers and the plastic for personal items.

The court system has also supplied the officers with medical masks and gloves.

‘Scared for the Future’

As for Ortiz, he’s worried about when — or if — he’ll be able to return to work. He noted that no state court official has checked how he’s doing or wished him well.

“I’m not mad, but I’m disappointed because I’ve worked for this organization for 16 years,” he said.

Chalfen responded: “I most certainly understand his disappointment. We were aware that he was in the hospital, but not the seriousness of his illness.”

A court official will be reaching out to Ortiz Friday “to assist in whatever needs he may have,” he added.

Quirk said he tries to call every union member out sick each night.

“I’m down to about 60 people who still have symptoms,” he said. “OCA doesn’t give a shit.”

Ortiz is also upset the courts weren’t closed sooner and that staff wasn’t given protective equipment right away.

“This disease was out there and we didn’t have masks,” he said. “My life has changed forever. I’m scared for the future.”

This story was originally published on May 7, 2020 by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.