On the Covid Front Lines with Essential Worker Matt Legault


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Vern here:  We met Matt Legault back in early 2018, when we covered the Anaheim police killing of his old school friend Chris Eisinger, and he stood before the cameras and microphones in front of the police station, talking about what a great guy Chris was and demanding answers.  Shortly after that he moved to Texas, but we stayed friends, even though we don’t agree on much politically.  Just recently he told me, “I’ve been seeing a lot of things out here that your readers might find interesting,” so… here’s Legault!

Hello OC!  For 15 years now I’ve been working on boilers, boilers mostly for hospitals and meat-packing plants.  Boilers and autoclaves.  Hospital boilers make hot water for the kitchens, the laundry, and most importantly for the sterilization of operating rooms and medical equipment. 

An autoclave is an oven they put medical tools in, they wash them with a lot of steam, around 250 degrees.  And since this pandemic hit, the need for maintenance on hospital boilers and autoclaves has risen about tenfold.  EVERYTHING is getting used a lot more, and even when it’s not, they can’t risk it going down.  So it needs ten times more attention from guys like me. 

Boiler room and autoclave.  They don’t like Matt taking pictures at work.

My employer has the contract with the VA, all the Veterans Administration Hospitals in the Southeast of the United States, so a few months ago I became considered an “essential worker.”  That means I’ve worked 80-90 hour weeks since late January.  Only four of those weeks have I gotten to see my family. 

Saying bye to the wife and daughters again…

I’ve worked in about 500 hospitals over the past four months (and a few dozen meat-packing plants too.)  I’ve driven thousands of miles – they used to give me the option of flying, but the VA stopped allowing that, it’s too unsafe.  And I’ve serviced hospitals all over the Southeast – Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and East Texas.

The VA hospital in Shreveport, Louisiana, that’s the “Overton-Brooks” Hospital, has been converted into a Covid hospital for the whole northen half of Louisiana.  It’s nice working on the boiler room, I don’t even have to wear a mask there, there’s just two guys to deal with.  But then to service the autoclaves it’s a different story, I gotta wear a gown, full PPE, two pairs of gloves.  The VA’s do have plenty of PPE, in Shreveport anyway. 

The Overton-Brooks VA hospital in Shreveport.

Also each time you go in you gotta get your temperature taken, they ask you all these questions – “Have you been near anyone who was positive for Covid?”  Like, how would I know that?  Sometimes I feel like saying “yes” just so they won’t let me in!  But those two dudes in the boiler room told me how good the chicken was inside so I went back in again… Yeah, it was that good.

Also in Shreveport, they had a patient there who was 101 years old, and he beat it!  And I was there.  Everyone was clapping when they wheeled him out, all the doctors and nurses were tearing up.

But that was unusual.  So many patients were dying when I was in Shreveport.  They had refrigerator trucks out back – one day I was out back smoking, and I  just watched them running bodies in.  Running them out of the hospital and into the refrigerator truck.  You could stand there five minutes and count fifteen or twenty.  It was sort of horrific.

And I watch these medical workers, usually they wear two pair of gloves at a time, and they change just the top layer between patients, but for the most part they’re in the same PPE for their entire 12-hour shifts.  You can watch them walk in and they look exhausted.  Then they look even more exhausted walking out.

Then, driving back to Texas from Louisiana, which is next door.  Texas has put a ban on traveling from Louisiana because the Covid is so bad there.  If you want to go from LA to TX you have to go through a two-week quarantine first.

Essential worker driving along…

So, I don’t go anywhere without this binder that’s got about twelve letters in it certifying I’m an essential worker.  I carry it in my van, letters from Department of Defense, Dept of Homeland Security, Dept of Veterans Affairs, you name it I got it.  So, coming home across the Texas borders there’s signs that say “Commercial vehicles stay in the left lane, passenger vehicles exit highway and stop at the checkpoint.”  Well I figured I am in a company vehicle so I’m commercial, so I just hopped into the left lane and blew off the check point.  Figured if DPS wants to talk to me they can pull me over.  But they never did.

Some of the hospitals in Texas have a whole floor devoted to Covid, that’s their ICU, converted.  When I go there I have to provide my own PPE, and it’s really hard to buy, my company’s even been having a hard-time, it’s being saved for the front-line medical workers and so on.  I ordered hand sanitizer in February and it didn’t show up till May.  Sometimes I wear the same mask for weeks.

At this one hospital in Dallas, the autoclave system I work on is right outside the ICU.  And they have like six crash carts (wheeled containers carrying medicine and equipment for use in emergency resuscitations) sitting in the hallway.  And they NEVER GO INSIDE.  You see a blue light coming on, the doors don’t even move.  People are dying quickly in Dallas, not being resuscitated.  I saw the same thing in Mississippi and the Carolinas.  When you “crash” with Covid you’re dead.  When you go on a ventilator you’re dead.

I’m not a doctor or expert but … if it were me I’d like them to try to revive me.  I’ve heard them say if we try to revive people we “risk more spread.”  There’s machines outside the hospitals running tubes hundreds of feet into patients’ rooms. 

It’s kind of horrific.  If you make it into that ward you probably won’t make it out.  The doctors and nurses won’t even go in there, you’re gonna die alone.  I’m not bashing them, but it’s all left up to them, and with no family allowed in, nobody is pushing them to make extra efforts.  It’s up to administrators now.  I’ve worked with these doctors and nurses, they’re worn out, and by now they just don’t care.  A little like that TV show Haus.

PPE & Ventilators & Empty Hospitals

I talk to the doctors and the nurses, they’re all geared up, but when you walk in you see boxes and boxes of PPE.  Plenty.  Still they make them wear the same every day.  They’re still waiting for the “big hit.” 

Ventilators too.  A lot of the boiler rooms I’ve been in are also being used as storage rooms, and I see ten up to a hundred boxed ventilators.  All in storage.  They’re not using the ventilators they’re getting – not in the Southeast anyway.  They’re all holding on to them “just in case.”  They’re expecting another “spike.”  Well, it’s gonna be 98 degrees in Texas tomorrow, let’s see how the virus likes the summer!

Another thing, most hospitals I’ve been to these four months are overwhelmed, but on the other hand a lot of them are nearly empty.  Maybe they haven’t been getting the Covid cases they’d been expecting in those areas, but they’re also not allowed to do any “unnecessary procedures” either, whatever unnecessary means.  So if you really need a knee replacement, that’s considered unnecessary and you can’t get it.  A lot of these hospitals have gone out of business, and a lot more will soon.  Medical City Plano (TX) is dying.  I don’t know who makes these decisions, but it doesn’t make sense to me.

Matt with daughters and wife.

Well, I got home yesterday at 2, and I’ll be on the road tmorrow morning at 5:30 AM.  My wife was just remarking how gray my beard is getting these last couple weeks, it’s been exhausting.  One good thing – the roads are empty!  Used to take half an hour to drive thru Waco, half an hour to drive thru Austin, now I just zoom right through!

Florida

Drove the 18 hours to a VA hospital near Gainesville, Florida.  I left my family the day before Mothers’ Day of all days, left her on Saturday with my two daughters, and had to call her from Florida today to wish her happy Mother’s Day.  Then  I went to a Longhorn Steakhouse and sat down and had a ribeye dinner.  It was the best damn steak I ever had in my life.  Florida has opened up.

A  bunch of Florida doctors and nurses had just returned from New York, trying to help up there.  They ended up spending a lot of time in their hotel rooms.  They went up there to serve – VA doctors and nurses.  They were appreciated, they were told to “stay put,” and then they were told to go home.  Some of them never even saw a hospital.

Oh, here’s a cool story.  Well, you’ll probably think it’s silly, but it was cool to me.  We’d just taken care of the sanitizer, we came out of the ER, took our stuff off, went down to the boiler room.  Inside it’s non-smoking, but we all smoke outside the boiler room.  I’m a two-pack-a-day guy.  Just like a lot of doctors and nurses.  They’re real good at telling people not to smoke, but they smoke like chimneys themselves on their breaks.

So anyway the other day one of the head boiler-operators there walked me up to the secret spot where all the doctors and nurses smoke.  And he told me usually there’s only two or three people out here, but at this point there were like 15 or 20 of them out there, because they were all stressed out.  And he said “Guys I want to introduce you to Matt.  Matt is from Texas.”  And they all looked at me like damn, what’s a guy from Texas doing here?  And he continued, “This guy is all over the country, he’s only been home four weeks this year.  He’s been all over the VA’s in the southeast making sure our boilers work, making your sterilizers work.  Doing what he can do.  He’s our hero for today.”

And you know what?  Half of them dropped their cigarettes, half of them started crying, *I* started crying, cuz I was like, YOU guys are MY heroes, and I mean … that was cool to me.  They all gave me hugs and handshakes which they probably shouldn’t have, but they were all like “You’re from Texas and you’re all the way out here in Florida.”

Well, I hate to say this, but I kind of don’t see an end to this situation.  I do like seeing the economy open back up, but I know the numbers are just going to increase then, so … I don’t see how or where this ends.  But I’ll keep on being the Road Warrior for Boilers and Autoclaves!

I’m wrapping this up on Memorial Day, so I’d like to post this song, if Vern doesn’t mind.

(written by Vern after 3 interviews with Matt)


About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official troubador of both Anaheim and Huntington Beach (the two ends of the Santa Ana Aquifer.) Performs regularly both solo, and with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at vernpnelson@gmail.com, or 714-235-VERN.