As It Happens

NYC doctor who delayed retirement to help his community during the pandemic dies of COVID-19

Dr. James Mahoney was getting ready to retire when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but he refused to abandon his community in their time of need. 

Dr. James (Charlie) Mahoney dedicated his whole career to a Brooklyn hospital that treats low-income patients

Dr. James Mahoney, known to friends and family as Charlie, is pictured here with his colleagues at the University Hospital of Brooklyn's Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine unit. Mahoney, 62, has died from COVID-19. (SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University)


Dr. James Mahoney was getting ready to retire when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, but he refused to abandon his community in their time of need. 

Now, the beloved New York City lung and intensive care doctor has died from the coronavirus disease he treated in so many others.

"Even if he had gone into retirement, I'm convinced he would have found a way to get back on the front lines for this pandemic because he knew people were in need and he would not sit on the sidelines," Dr. Robert Foronjy, Mahoney's friend and boss, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"He was attending the ICU when the first wave hit us, and he worked tirelessly. He would work day. He would work night. I know he was exhausted, but I know he took great pride in what he was doing and felt a tremendous sense of satisfaction out of helping the community at such a time of need."

The 62-year-old, known to his loved ones as Charlie, died April 27. He is survived by three children, four siblings, his father, and his partner, who is a nurse.  

'He was the heart and soul of this institution'

Foronjy is the chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University Hospital of Brooklyn, the public wing of SUNY Downstate, where Mahoney worked for 38 years. 

Over the course of his career, Mahoney worked through the AIDS crisis, the H1N1 outbreak and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. 

"He was the heart and soul of this institution. And everybody from all walks of life, from all stations in the hospital, in the medical centre, knew him and loved him," Foronjy said.

"This was his second home and we were his family."

Mahoney worked for 38 years at the SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University before dying from COVID-19 in April. (SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University)

Mahoney was known for mentoring young doctors, giving his personal cellphone number to his patients, and befriending everyone in the hospital, from his boss to the janitors and gift shop cashiers. 

"There's a real hierarchy in medicine, and it can be very stiff. Dr. Mahoney had none of that," Foronjy said.  "There were no barriers with Dr. Mahoney."

He would also work night shifts at Kings County Hospital Center across the street from SUNY.

"There are two hospitals crying. Nonstop," his brother Melvin Mahoney told the Washington Post. "I've heard men crying like you wouldn't believe. That's how much they loved my brother."

Turned down better-paying jobs 

Mahoney had several opportunities to leave the state-run SUNY medical centre for better-paying jobs at more upscale, private hospitals.

But his sister Saundra Chisholm told the Post that he always turned them down, opting instead to stay at the hospital where he first worked as a medical student in 1982.

He got his satisfaction in life in helping people, out of serving others, out of making someone's load a little lighter.- Dr. Robert Foronjy

Many of SUNY's patients are low-income New Yorkers, and members of minority communities. The hospital had to turn to public fundraising to keep up with the demands of COVID-19, according to the New York Times.

"He was a man of faith and was really driven not by the things that drive other people. He wasn't one to hoard money," Foronjy said. 

"He got his satisfaction in life in helping people, out of serving others, out of making someone's load a little lighter. And this was a community that he saw in need, and he made a difference."

Dr. Robert Foronjy, left, is pictured standing next to Mahoney and their colleagues at the SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University. ( SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University)

New York is the epicentre of the pandemic in the U.S., with 359,235 cases and 28,540 deaths as of Wednesday, according to data tracked by the New York Times

The coronavirus disease is killing black Americans at almost three times the rate as white Americans, according to research published Wednesday by the APM Research Lab.

'We had done everything possible ... and it wasn't enough' 

Mahoney was working in the ICU when the first wave of COVID-19 cases hit New York. By mid-April, he started coming down with symptoms of the disease, and stayed home to recover.

But his condition got worse.

"Eventually, we convinced him to come in," Foronjy said. "He barely made it in. In fact, later he had no recollection of how we made it from his house to the emergency department. He had deteriorated so quickly, which is, again, something that's really frightening about this disease."

His SUNY colleagues oversaw his treatment at first, but later decided to move him to Tisch Hospital, which has more sophisticated blood-oxygenation equipment.

Shortly after he was admitted, he "took a turn for the worse and couldn't be saved," Foronjy said. 

Mahoney died on April 27 in the Tisch ICU, surrounded by members of his work family. 

"That was devastating to know that we had done everything possible that we could to save someone we loved. And it wasn't enough," Foronjy said.

Before Mahoney died, Foronjy says was able to tell his friend how important he was to him. 

"I held his hand, told him how much I loved him. Everybody loved him. He reciprocated that," he said. "I'm thankful that we had that time to let him know how much everyone cared about him."

Even in death, Mahoney's work continues to have an impact on medicine because of the years he spent training and mentoring up-and-coming doctors, Foronjy  said.

"He was a man of such a great heart," he said. 

"His legacy is going to live on through his family, through us and through the people he trained all over the country, in some cases all over the world, providing humanistic quality care, which they learned under Dr. Mahoney."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Robert Foronjy produced by Katie Geleff. 

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