Yale vs Covid

Room service

By Cathy Shufro

For three long weeks this spring, Diane Ceruti watched nurses and doctors disappear into patients’ rooms on 5/7 East Pavilion at Yale New Haven Hospital. “They had on their full masks and gowns. That was scary, scary, to see them go in like that.”

Ceruti’s unit on York Street usually cares for people recovering from cardiovascular procedures. But beginning on April 11, coronavirus patients took over its 26 beds.

“Things were getting worse and worse,” says Ceruti, a business associate who works the evening shift. “We went from visitation [whole families allowed to visit patients], to one visitor, to no visitation. It didn’t seem there was much hope.” She wasn’t working directly with sick people, but she spent a lot of time “absorbing the stress” of frightened and exhausted colleagues. When Ceruti would leave the hospital at 11:30, she’d wonder, “What are they dealing with tonight?” She couldn’t sleep.

Then one afternoon, she got a call from downstairs. “It was something we didn’t expect. It was, ‘We have meals for your unit. Come down and pick them up.’” Day after day, the food arrived, not just at 5/7 East Pavilion but in many sectors of the hospital. Ultimately, staff on the frontlines of the pandemic would receive nearly 26,000 meals. The deliveries came from various city restaurants and always included food for vegetarians and vegans. Ceruti’s favorites were the tikka masala from House of Naan and the firecracker chicken with millet rice from Junzi Kitchen.

The food lifted morale, says cardiologist Sandip Mukherjee, an associate professor of clinical medicine who helped oversee the meals’ distribution. It was comforting for staff members, because those free meals signaled that people outside the hospital walls recognized the struggle within. And in a time of urgency and worry, the staff didn’t need to worry about dinner.

Eighteen New Haven restaurants delivered the meals to Yale New Haven Hospital and the Veterans Administration Hospital in West Haven, and kept serving them until the surge of COVID-19 cases had dwindled. On the busiest days, local chefs and cooks assembled more than 1,100 breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.

Seven women who’d met through the grapevine made it happen. Laurie Rosenfield of Madison  connected with the nonprofit Frontline Foods, which provided meals in more than 60 other US cities. Frontline Foods had formed a partnership with World Central Kitchen, a project initiated by Chef José Andrés to feed survivors of natural disasters. World Central Kitchen funded two weeks of meals in New Haven, and the women raised $259,000 for the rest. Large donations came from Yale University and Yale New Haven Hospital. People from New Haven and its suburbs contributed another $109,000.

One of the seven women, Amy Starensier Lee, recalls watching the first delivery to Yale New Haven Hospital on York Street. Although it was Easter Sunday, the hospital entrance was empty: no cars pulling up, no people streaming in and out. Lee watched as local chefs rolled their food carts onto the sidewalk. Everyone stepped back as nurses and physician assistants emerged, gestured their thanks, and took the food inside. “Even though they were masked,” Lee says, “you could see the joy and appreciation in their eyes—to know that people outside the hospital were thinking of them.”

The project also provided a lifeline for the restaurant owners and staffs: kitchens could remain open, and some staff members would be spared from layoffs. Lee, who calls New Haven “a gem, an amazing city,” is determined to help keep it that way. Affection for the city also motivated Mukherjee, the cardiologist. “I’m a foodie,” he says. “Some of my favorite places are the food carts outside the hospital. A lot of New Haven restaurateurs and cooks are my friends.” When he finished his residency at Yale in the early 1990s, New Haven’s restaurant scene was one of the reasons he stayed.


By the time the food stopped arriving, in late May, 27,000 meals head been delivered. Things had gotten better on Diane Ceruti’s unit. Electronic tablets helped; they offered patients the virtual companionship of family and friends. “That made a tremendous difference,” Ceruti says. “Patients felt the love; they felt they wanted to get better.” When she left at night, she could tell herself, “Yup, we got through another day, and now these patients are getting better.” She credits the manager of their unit, John Sward ’11MSN, with keeping things organized and everyone safe. Throughout the summer, only one coronavirus patient died at 5/7 East Pavilion.

There was even joy. Every time a coronavirus patient left the building, the chorus of an Andra Day song would play on the intercom: “I’ll rise up, I’ll rise like the day / I’ll rise up, I’ll rise unafraid.” And Ceruti would think, “They’re going home. They’re going home to their families.”


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