What I Found When I Looked for the Helpers

Even in the midst of death and divisiveness, people are working to fix different pieces of American life the pandemic broke.

Illustration of hands joining together over a yellow circle
Getty; The Atlantic

Pandemic coverage has continually described America’s rancor and division, political ineptitude and buck passing, fury at leaders and fellow citizens for restricting too much or not enough, for insisting on masks or refusing to wear them. Almost as soon as shortages, whether of masks or toilet paper, occurred, counterfeits and price gouging followed. Almost as soon as officials imposed mandates, people threatened, or in some cases committed, violence. Many have written about the ways we have failed one another, about the bungled government response, about how the arc of American public life has bent from the fleeting we’re-all-in-this-together goodwill of March 2020 toward relentless dysfunction.

But there’s a parallel and no-less-true story of the pandemic in the United States: Most people have behaved honorably, and that they have done so in spite of harrowing circumstances and bad leadership makes their efforts even more worthy of celebration. They have made millions of boring, daily, unheralded decisions to keep others safe, share resources, and ease the loneliness of the most isolated. Neighbors sewed masks for neighbors; students sent letters to nursing homes; mutual-aid groups delivered groceries to the homebound. These acts haven’t always been newsworthy. In fact, they have often been the norm.

Book cover of The Helpers.
This article is adapted from Gilsinan’s recent book.

Even in this context, some people have stood out for their selflessness. In early 2020, being myself deluged with grim headlines and aching for hope, I set out to find some of them and tell their stories. I wanted to remind myself and others about the goodness and heroism human beings are capable of. I looked all over the country for people trying to fix different pieces of American life the pandemic broke—people in the medical profession aiding the sick, people feeding the hungry as jobs disappeared, people trying to educate kids as schools shut down, and people trying to stop COVID’s transmission altogether in the historic race for vaccines.

I found many ordinary people who stepped up to meet an extraordinary moment even as the temptation of hopelessness lurked, even at the risk of their own life. They didn’t have much in common; they came from different states and professions and races and levels of wealth. But they all embodied the best of America while the worst raged around them.

Paul Cary, for instance, was well known within the medical system in Aurora, Colorado, where he served as a paramedic—not only for his walrus mustache or the near-obsessive hours he put in, but also for his warmth. Harried and cynical ER nurses would light up when Cary arrived and asked after their families, cracking jokes about living the dream even as he was spending the evening ferrying gunshot victims or septic patients to the hospital. He wanted to be there for people on their worst days; that was the job. And in late March 2020, with COVID deaths mounting into the hundreds in New York City but still in the low double digits in his own state, Cary, a retired firefighter, decided to race toward the fire: He drove his ambulance 28 hours across the country to help relieve overwhelmed paramedics in New York. He did this knowing that, at 66, with a blood-clot disorder, a bad back, and other health issues, he was squarely in the demographic COVID preferred to kill.

Along with Cary, hundreds of first responders from around the country descended on New York in an extraordinary effort under the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The city’s hotels, emptied of tourists, became de facto dormitories for emergency workers. The Bronx Zoo parking lot became a village of trucks ready to shoot out and rescue the sick. Cary spent weeks doing “hospital decompression”—moving patients from too-full facilities to less-full ones. “You could tell he was tired,” Alissa Perry, a Colorado paramedic who deployed to New York with Cary, told me. But “he was never gonna go home until they told him to.” He was planning to extend his deployment when he got sick with COVID himself. He died in April, roughly a month after he first arrived in New York. Fire and EMS trucks lined the streets of two cities, New York and Aurora, with flashing lights and saluting people, to pay him tribute on his way home. Friends and neighbors held up signs: ALL GAVE SOME. SOME GAVE ALL.

By then, Michelle Gonzalez, a 30-year-old ICU nurse in the Bronx with a brown ponytail and a heavy New York accent, had already been through her own bout of COVID. She’d endured some of the worst shifts of her career as her hospital ran low on space, protective equipment, and ventilators. She’d scrounged for masks for herself and fellow nurses and queasily reused N95s stored in paper bags; she’d stripped in the hallway of her apartment building and scampered to the shower, fearing she’d infect her parents in their 60s. She’d also coaxed some patients back to health. But the virus hit her own home, and her family. Gonzalez told me that she spent weeks praying that her parents wouldn’t die while she battled her own fever and difficulty breathing.  After she and her family recovered, she was right back in the ICU, tending to the very sickest, holding the hands of the dying, backing up less-experienced nurses thrust into the hardest jobs because of demand. She said she always resented the “health-care hero” praise. She didn’t need thanks. She, and other nurses, needed help. When the worst of New York’s first wave subsided that summer, Gonzalez threw herself into union work to negotiate better wages and working conditions for other nurses. “People who don’t have voices, I’m gonna have a voice for you,” she told me. “Because I got a big mouth.”

Hamilton Bennett was working on a vaccine before many Americans had even heard of the coronavirus. Bennett is a sweet-speaking young scientist who grew up in part on a Kentucky hay farm. She describes herself as a bleeding-heart public-health enthusiast drawn to working on emerging infectious diseases—some of the least profitable, least glamorous work in the pharmaceutical industry, as if she was pointing her career directly away from money and glory. In 2016, she’d joined a Boston biotech firm entirely focused on a technology that many scientists had given up studying, that had never brought a workable product to market, and that was losing $100 million a quarter by early 2020. But even after four years, Bennett, a vaccine-program lead at Moderna, was a true believer in the company and in the promise of mRNA vaccines.

Days after Chinese scientists published the genetic sequence of the coronavirus, Moderna’s research scientists, at Bennett’s urging, had found a draft sequence for a vaccine. She had it by January 13, 2020—eight days before the first official report of the virus in the United States. After convincing skeptical bosses to bet the company’s future on an all-out gallop for the vaccine, Bennett spent the remainder of the year overseeing a record-breaking vaccine program. (The previous record was the four-year development of the mumps vaccine; when Bennett first joined Moderna, she spent 18 months trying to develop a Zika vaccine with no success.) By Christmas 2020—within less than a year—Bennett’s team had secured emergency use authorization. Among her best presents that year was a photo from a colleague: a group of warehouse workers, standing around a box of Moderna vaccine vials, blessing them.

These are extraordinary stories, but they capture something that’s not at all unusual in times of crisis: People step up. After 9/11, volunteers ran toward the rubble and blood banks were overwhelmed with donations. After Hurricane Katrina, as Rebecca Solnit writes in her book A Paradise Built in Hell, “thousands of people survived … because grandsons or aunts or neighbors or complete strangers reached out to those in need.” Solnit, and many others, have documented this altruistic instinct during earthquakes, bombings, and, yes, pandemics. Albert Camus’ plague was a fictional one, but his conclusion about “times of pestilence” was completely right: “that there is more to admire in men than to despise.”

So when I see the inevitable headlines about Americans’ divisions over masking and vaccination, I remind myself that the percentage of Americans who report wearing masks outside the home has never dipped below half since April 2020, according to Gallup, and was at 70 percent as of the latest data in December 2021, even with vaccines widely available. I remember that the same poll shows the number of respondents willing to get vaccinated as higher than ever, at 81 percent; 73 percent reported themselves fully vaccinated. I know that, despite well-publicized denialism, overwhelming numbers of Americans know the pandemic isn’t over and are taking steps to prevent sickening others.

People, of course, fail, and so do institutions. Individual goodwill and altruism cannot by themselves compensate for systemic weaknesses, and no kind volunteer alone will fix decades of underinvestment in public health or vulnerable supply chains for protective equipment. No feel-good story can compensate for the loss of more than 900,000 Americans or repair the heartbreak of millions of grieving loved ones. Still, there are those—many more than perhaps we expect—who look impossible odds in the eyes and fight anyway.

This post is adapted from Gilsinan’s recent book, The Helpers: Profiles From the Front Lines of the Pandemic.

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