Broker and nurse on the front lines: “It’s never been worse”

Real estate agent Robert Ritchie is putting in 13-hour shifts with Covid patients

TRD New York /
Apr.April 24, 2020 08:30 AM
Street Signs Realty's Robert Ritchie

Street Signs Realty’s Robert Ritchie

About a week into March, Robert Ritchie saw his first Covid-19 patient in his hospital’s intensive care unit. When he returned for another shift three days later, the unit was full.

“It was just downhill from there,” said the 61-year-old New Yorker, who works as both a real estate broker and a critical care nurse. “Two weeks ago, I had three ventilator patients. They were all critically ill, and I don’t believe any of them survived.”

Ritchie spent about three years as an Army medic in the late 1970s, received his nursing license in 1984 and became a real estate agent in 2010. He spent about eight years at Exit Realty Central in Queens and now works independently at Street Signs Realty on Long Island, where he focuses on commercial properties in New York City.

But he has kept up his nursing work and throughout the pandemic has been treating Covid-19 patients in the intensive care unit of a Manhattan hospital, which he requested The Real Deal not name.

Ritchie — one of a number of real estate professionals and companies helping out during the pandemic — typically works at the hospital two days a week. His shifts are long — 12 or 13 hours — but during the pandemic have been unlike anything he has seen in his career, including his time in the military and during the city’s AIDS epidemic.

“They just keep coming in,” he said, “and you’re told to move this patient out, get this patient out, let’s go, there’s no delaying, and you have all these teams rushing to these emergencies.”

“I don’t think it’s ever been any worse than this,” he continued. “Just the volume and the acuity. There’s just nothing like it.”

The learning curve has been steep but quick. Ritchie said the hospital staff has already gained “a lot of experience, so we know what works and what doesn’t.”

He agrees with the growing consensus that New York has passed its initial peak of coronavirus cases, noting that Covid-19 cases at his hospital are falling and that a non-Covid surgical unit finally re-opened this week. However, the pandemic is still keeping the hospital very busy. Four emergency intubations happened during his shift Tuesday, he said.

Ritchie’s hospital has not suffered from any major equipment shortages, but he did say workers were asked earlier this month to extend the life of their N95 masks.

“They always had them,” he said. “They were just trying to get us to use them a little bit longer.”

The hospital came to seem like two completely different places, especially when the number of patients was peaking, according to Ritchie. In the units with Covid-19 patients it was incredibly busy, but anywhere else was essentially deserted.

“There was no activity unless you walked in the units,” he said. Apart from that, “It was completely dead. There was nobody around because there were no more visitors, no more families.”

One of the hardest parts of the pandemic for Ritchie has been the struggle to give all of his patients the amount of care they deserve, especially when it comes to basic elements of nursing such as turning patients to prevent bedsores and keeping them clean. He is also anxious about contracting the virus and passing it onto his wife, who also works with Covid-19 patients, or his two teenage children.

But Ritchie finds himself rising to the challenge of the hospital’s frenetic pace.

“When I’m just getting there, I’m kind of flat,” he said. “I take a big, deep breath before I go in, and then once I’m inside, I’m juiced up and ready to go.”

“It’s a job, and I still love doing it,” he continued. “Covid hasn’t changed anything for me.”


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