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La Rue: 'Desperate Hours' a compelling glimpse at COVID's early days

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Desperate Hours

The dog days of summer are upon us, and if you are looking for something a little under-the-radar to read, here is one that is destined to be on my list of the most compelling books of 2022.

Marie Brenner is an award-winning writer for Vanity Fair magazine, and she tackles the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in her brilliant book, “The Desperate Hours: One Hospital’s Fight To Save A City on the Pandemic’s Front Lines."

Brenner received unprecedented access to doctors, nurses, researchers, administrators and even some patients at the New York-Presbyterian hospital system in New York City as they are faced with the worse pandemic to hit this country in 100 years.

New York City was the epicenter of the beginning of the pandemic in the United States in early 2020. Elmhurst Hospital in Queens was the hardest-hit in early 2020, seeing hundreds of people come through their ER with COVID-19.

No one knew exactly how to treat COVID-19, or which treatments would work, and people were dying all around them. As the pandemic spread to the other hospitals in New York, including New York-Presbyterian on the Upper East Side, doctors, nurses and administrators worked together to completely revamp their hospital practically overnight.

The logistics of converting operating rooms (that were now going unused) into ICU rooms were daunting. There weren’t enough ventilators for the patients who needed them, and the ones supplied by the federal and state governments were missing crucial parts or arrived by the truckload completely broken in pieces.

Diane La Rue

Diane La Rue

The limited supply of ventilators brought in questions of medical ethics. Who makes the decision as to who gets the ventilators, and what is the criteria? Brenner takes us right into those difficult discussions.

Hospitals were only dealing with COVID patients — one doctor brought up the fact that they hadn’t seen a cardiac patient in weeks. Where did all those people go? There was no testing for the longest time, so they didn’t know for sure who had COVID, and the vaccine was many months away.

So many people stepped up in this crisis — nurses who didn’t know if they could bring this deadly disease home to their young children, doctors who sent their families away to safety while they worked insane hours. Staff accountants were called upon to transport patients. Maintenance staff had to clean the rooms of COVID patients, exposing themselves to deathly ill patients multiple times a day.

Surgical residents came up with the idea of a surgical SWAT team that, “loaded with backpacks of equipment, (they) would roam through the pop-up ICUs and rooms.” The SWAT team ended up doing bedside procedures for 400 patients in one month.

One thing that struck me about this gripping book is how many smart and capable people work in the medical field. New York City attracts so many brilliant people from all over the world, and they are dedicated to their profession.

Brenner seamless weaves the individual stories of these brave and resourceful people into a cohesive true tale. The nurse who was one of the first medical staff to get COVID and her friends who valiantly worked to keep her alive, the woman who became the first asymptomatic COVID-positive mom in labor, the anesthesiologist whose encyclopedic knowledge and collection of antique ventilators was invaluable — all of their stories are unforgettable.

Finding needed supplies was a big problem, especially the KN95 masks, gloves and surgical gowns needed to protect nurses and doctors. There were plenty of people ready and willing to steal and scam hospitals and nursing homes with promises of phantom supplies that never showed up.

The topic of inequities in the health care system is also addressed. Elmhurst Hospital in Queens was overrun with COVID patients, and yet they did not have the same resources as the better-funded Manhattan hospitals like New York-Presbyterian. Millionaires did not sit on their board of directors. Going forward, this is a national problem that must be tackled.

“The Desperate Hours” is a riveting story, so incredibly well-told. It reminds me of Sheri Fink’s award-winning book “Five Days At Memorial,” the true story of a hospital in New Orleans ravaged by Hurricane Katrina and cut off from the outside world. Marie Brenner has written a book that will define this pandemic time. I give it my highest recommendation.

Diane La Rue is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and blogs about books at You can follow her on Twitter @bookchickdi, and she can be emailed at


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