A legend at a Brooklyn hospital dies of Covid-19: 'He ran into the fire'
When James “Charlie” Mahoney and his older brother Melvin went to medical school in the 80s, black doctors were hard to find.
“We remember what it was like when you didn’t see anybody that looked like you,” said Melvin, an internal medicine doctor who worked alongside Mahoney. Even now this group comprises only 5% of the physician workforce.
Mahoney wasn’t a “crusader”, Melvin said. Instead, he approached everything he did with calm resolve, eschewing hospital hierarchies, and leaving the door open for those who followed.
Mahoney would go on to become a respected pulmonologist and pillar of his Brooklyn university hospital system, who led his team into the Covid-19 crisis. But he couldn’t avoid the dangers that frontline workers face – particularly as a lung doctor treating a respiratory illness.
Like many public hospitals in New York, Mahoney’s workplace didn’t have enough protective equipment at the onset of the pandemic and staffing was strained. The exposure was inescapable.
“He was handling patients and codes [patients needing intensive intervention] every five to 10 minutes,” said Purna Atluri, a gastroenterologist who worked with Mahoney for more than 20 years. “He was doing everything he could.”
Atluri was concerned about his friend because he was heavyset, a risk factor for the virus. But for weeks, Mahoney seemed healthy and mostly worried about his sister, who had experienced coronavirus complications.
That would change in a matter of days.
“He’s one of our legends – he’s one of our giants,” said neurologist and colleague Julien Cavanagh.
Mahoney started working alongside his older brother when he was eight years old – at three jobs, no less. Growing up in military housing on Long Island, New York, they put in hours at a laundromat, German delicatessen and luncheonette.
Even back then, people noticed quiet, intelligent Mahoney. “He was really loved by everyone,” Melvin said.
During college, Mahoney transported patients at Long Beach hospital – a job that revealed parts of the hospital that physicians often overlook. “He could see what it was like to be at a different level – he could see if a patient didn’t get their food, or if someone took it away too quickly,” Melvin said.
A higher-up at the hospital recommended Mahoney for SUNY Downstate Medical School. He graduated in 1986, and worked at SUNY Downstate’s Intensive Care Unit and the affiliated Kings County hospital, until the end.
As Mahoney rose through the ranks, he continued to notice the details. After his sister, Saundra Chisolm threw him a 50th birthday party, he chided her for seating esteemed physicians at the head tables, instead of administrative staff.
“He didn’t treat people like underlings,” Chisolm said. “He would talk to housekeeping like he would talk to the chief of the hospital.”
He eventually took over the ICU. People called him a teddy bear, because he was kind and soft-spoken. But he was assertive if he noticed injustice – which, like many physicians of color, he experienced throughout his career.
“That’s where he would stand his ground,” Chisolm said. “He told that to a lot of his residents who were people of color: you’re just as smart as everyone else.”
Mahoney’s steadfast, egalitarian nature made him a favorite among patients. His hospital system serves a majority black, low-income population with high rates of chronic disease. But he would never consider a patient’s insurance status or hesitate to call in other specialists.
Anything Mahoney learned, he taught. Cavanagh, who trained under Mahoney, said he could call him at 3am with questions about a patient, and never feel ashamed. But Mahoney demanded excellence.
“He was someone you think of when writing your [patient] notes,” Cavanagh said. “He was someone that you wanted to make proud.”
He was handling patients and codes every five to ten minutes Purna Atluri, gastroenterologist
Mahoney’s teaching extended beyond work. He coached baseball and football teams in Baldwin, Long Island, where he and his ex-wife Lisa Johnson Mahoney raised three children: Stephanie, Jamie and Ryan.
In January, Mahoney, had planned to scale back hospital hours. He went on a Caribbean cruise with his father and sister – one of 50 cruises in his lifetime. “He said, ‘that’s probably gonna be my retirement cruise,’” Chisolm said.
Then the pandemic hit.
Mahoney was well-trained to treat Covid-19 patients. And public hospitals, already stretched thin, were bracing for an influx of patients. So he went “running into the fire”, Melvin said. Brooklyn has had 40,000 Covid-19 cases, and the virus hit black and Latino communities the hardest.
“The last time I saw him was at the beginning of the pandemic,” Cavanagh said. “I said, are we going to get through this? And he said, oh yeah, we’re going to get through this.”
But in early April, Mahoney started coughing and running a fever. On Easter Sunday, after Chisolm recovered, Mahoney’s family noticed on a video chat that he didn’t look well. The next day, he was admitted to his own hospital, SUNY Downstate.
At first, Mahoney seemed to be improving – he gave his family a thumbs up on FaceTime. Then his health deteriorated and he was transferred to NYU Langone for a higher level of care. He died on 27 April.
Physicians at SUNY Downstate said Mahoney’s death has left a hole in the institution after his three decades there. “He was what we call a ‘lifer’” at the hospital, said colleague Alex Hieu Ly.
In early May, Chisolm was home in Long Island, grieving her brother and awaiting a different kind of news: her daughter-in-law was about to have a baby. The moment was bittersweet.
“He’s given us a lot of fodder,” she said. “They have plenty of material to talk about for years to come.” She hoped her granddaughter would take after Mahoney.