Editor’s Note: The unique year we endured in 2020 led to a slight twist in our annual People of the Year. As a way to honor the extraordinary work done to combat COVID-19 over the past year at our local hospitals, Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital and Peconic Bay Medical Center, we present two Person of the Year stories here, including Dr. Lawrence Walser, who we also honor in our Riverhead News-Review edition.
A common theme began to emerge across America when the coronavirus pandemic struck and reality of the devastating effects caused by COVID-19 became all too clear: “Not all heroes wear capes.”
That held true here.
We witnessed doctors and nurses rising to the challenge to confront a deadly virus. First responders risking their own safety to bring sick patients to hospitals. And the grassroots support, whether through meal trains or other initiatives from the community to support those workers on the front lines.
In early April, during the peak of the pandemic’s initial wave across Suffolk County, as thousands of people became sick and hundreds died, one “modern-day hero” went above and beyond the call of duty.
At Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport, Shari Hymes brought more than 35 years experience to her job as a respiratory therapist, a critically vital position in dealing with a respiratory disease such as COVID that can cause pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome.
In the early part of the pandemic, one of the greatest concerns centered around securing enough ventilators to treat all the patients who would need them. Ventilators became a daily theme during Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s media briefings.
“Ventilators, ventilators, ventilators” he would say.
Ms. Hymes had heard about a new technology from the company Vapotherm while at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, where she also works. The technology allows patients to be treated before resorting to endotracheal intubation, which is a medical procedure where a tube is placed into a person’s mouth or nose. Patients can still eat, talk and take medicine while receiving treatment through the device.
“Everyone’s hearing about ventilators, and we still do need more ventilators,” Ms. Hymes said at the time. “But with this Vapotherm system, we’ll have an extra option; we don’t have to go right to intubation.”
At Stony Brook ELIH, there was no option yet to use a Vapotherm system. So Ms. Hymes took matters into her own hands.
She spent $10,000 to purchase the High Velocity Nasal Insufflation system and supplies that would be used as a mask-free treatment on some COVID-19 patients.
For her generosity and dedication to helping others while confronting COVID-19, and for the inspiration that led to so many other acts of kindness, Ms. Hymes is The Suffolk Times Person of the Year.
“It’s very important to support your local community hospital or any hospital right now,” Ms. Hymes said in a video she recorded for a Newsday article highlighting “Long Island Acts of Kindness” in mid-April. “This community has been amazing, but the health care workers as you know are working pretty damn hard and everybody’s really pulling it together.”
Paul Connor, Stony Brook ELIH’s CEO, said in April that Ms. Hymes, who lives in Southold, had gone above and beyond by purchasing the expensive system.
“She’s one of the many modern-day heroes that make me so proud to be part of this incredible staff,” he said.
The work by Ms. Hymes and her donation exemplified the extraordinary efforts that so many fellow health care workers put forth during a time of so much uncertainty and despair.
Ms. Hymes told Newsday last April that some of the money she donated came from overtime she earned and the rest came from her savings.
“I’ve never seen such a sense of community as I do throughout the North Fork,” Ms. Hymes said in April. “There’s so much we can do; we can all do this.”
More good news soon followed for Stony Brook ELIH as the hospital announced in April that Randy Frankel, owner of Shinn Estate Vineyards, donated $100,000 to the Eastern Long Island Hospital Foundation’s COVID-19 Action Fund. Funds from the donation were used toward the hospital’s surge plan to increase bed capacity by 50%.
Some even found a way to make the days a little brighter for staff at Stony Brook ELIH. On May 8, Riverhead Rotary donated hundreds of flowers to the hospital staff, an effort spearheaded by Mary Hughes, a Riverhead Rotarian and a Peconic Landing employee.
All across the North Fork, everyday heroes like Ms. Hymes rose to the occasion.
2019: Father Joe Staudt
2018: Mary Latham
2017: Eleanor Lingo
2016: Charles Reichert
2015: Kait’s Angels
2014: Jeff Heidtmann
2013: David Gamberg and Michael Comanda
2012: Southold Emergency Response Team
2011: Paul and Barbara Stoutenburgh
2010: Scott Russell
2009: Ryan Creighton
2008: North Fork NJROTC
2007: Maureen’s haven
2006: Southold Town Animal Shelter
2005: Ronnie Wacker
2004: Josh Horton
2003: Regina Maris Crew
2002: Colin Van Tuyl
2001: Frank LePré
2000: Ellie Hall
1999: Sister Margaret Smyth
1998: Reverend Lynda Clements
1997: Tim Caufield
1996: Dr. Micah Kaplan
1995: David Kappell
1994: Bob Levy
1993: Walter Dohm
1992: Reverend Summers
1991: Planning Conference
1990: 350th Committee
1989: Lynne Richards
1988: Franklin Bear
1987: Linda Graham