Credit: Dyce family photo

One Harlem woman recounts her harrowing experience with her bout of COVID-19 last year, warning others against the real dangers of the virus if they don’t consider getting vaccinated.

Natasha Dyce, a dedicated public servant at the PACT Renaissance Collaborative, spent nearly 50 days in the hospital after getting COVID. She suffered from failing organs and daily hallucinations, and then through rehabilitation, finally returned to work renovating apartments for New York City Housing Authority residents this year.

Dyce was born in Jamaica and raised in Harlem by a working class single-mother. “Her focus has always been being thankful for those you have in life, no matter how hard it is. Work hard. You know, make your way. Do something with yourself,” said Dyce, describing her mother. “It was just me and her growing up.”

Dyce lives in her family home in Harlem with her mother. Her father still lives in Jamaica, she said.

Inspired by her mom’s public service as a long-time nurse, Dyce attended Binghamton University before becoming a social worker as a means to serve her community. She mentored adolescents in correctional facilities, and then worked in children’s services for 13 years working to unite and strengthen families, she said. Dyce said that she is indebted to her community, and loves living and working in her hometown. From there she made the move to construction in retail while continuing social work.

The PRC, Dyce’s current employer, was established in September 2019, just before the onslaught of the COVID-19 crisis.

“This project actually tied my past together with the social work piece, the construction piece. And the program was just kicking off,” said Dyce.

The PRC is a program that aims to renovate and revitalize 1,700 apartments across 16 NYCHA developments in Manhattan. It’s run by not-for-profit and for-profit partners that specialize in developing, maintaining and revitalizing affordable housing.

President of Monadnock Development Kirk Goodrich, who heads the initiative’s lead development company, had said in a statement that the team was composed of individuals and firms that were devoted to improving the quality of life of New Yorkers and providing as many comfortable homes as they could.

Buildings in the city’s Permanent Affordability Commitment Together (PACT) and the federal Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), or the PACT/RAD program, have been notoriously underfunded and underserved for decades, leaving them in desperate need of repairs.

According to city data, there’s about 505,430 open work orders for June 2021 throughout NYCHA developments in the five boroughs. The average service or maintenance days are at 273 for repairs.

Dyce said that she knew about the poor conditions that families had to endure from her role as a social worker. In her role as the resident tenant supervisor for PRC, she helped residents deal with the stress of essentially living in a construction site while the organization conducted repairs. She said plenty of residents resisted a little, fearing that they’d be kicked out of their homes once they packed their belongings during repairs.

“It was near and dear to my heart, and I was very passionate about it. Just knowing that these apartments would be renovated and provide a much better way of life,” she said. “I felt like this was all coming together. A sign from God.”

Just as the program got rolling with assessing units and preparing every apartment for renovations—COVID happened and stalled Dyce’s dream.

She was diagnosed with COVID in March 2020.

“Like everyone else, you kind of just realize something is not right,” she said.

In mid-March, she said that she wasn’t feeling well right before the mandatory citywide lockdown was instated. Dyce was sent home with a bunch of her co-workers. She said she was extremely tired and didn’t have an appetite with chills and a fever. She said she didn’t start getting nervous until she lost her senses.

At that point in the pandemic very little was known about the COVID outbreak while prices for goods spiked and the news struggled to find accurate information for the public.

She said she thought it was just a cold so she began taking cold medicine, which wasn’t really helping. Her elderly mother, who’s sister had just died, started leaving soup at her door and caring for Dyce from a distance.

After about a week of symptoms and working from home, she said she was still beyond weak. Both her and her mother decided to cancel their flights to her aunt’s funeral.

“I called 311 to ask about COVID tests, and um, I got someone and they told me they had just closed. And she was like, ‘Hold up, I don’t like how you sound. You sound like you’re laboring to breathe,’” said Dyce.

Nervous, her mother called the ambulance the next day after Dyce couldn’t talk and was unresponsive. Once at the New York Columbia Presbyterian Hospital emergency room, staff informed her mother that her daughter wouldn’t be home anytime soon.

“I remember being in a room for like a day, and then that was it, I was out. The next time I woke up it was after being on a vent[ilator] for five weeks,” she said.

Dyce said that she woke up with a tracheostomy tube in her throat and a bustling room of doctors and nurses in late April. She was immediately overwhelmed at the space-looking suits they were in. Her feet were swollen and in booties. She couldn’t move any part of her body.

She said she started to cry.

Dyce, in her 40s, and her mother, who is 69, got to Facetime her and reconnect though. “I just kept crying because at that point that was the only normal part of the day I was having,” said Dyce.

She said her mother was told to make arrangements for her death because doctors assumed she wouldn’t make it once her organs started failing.

Her family rejoiced when she woke up. Dyce said the other patients in the room never did.

“I felt like I wanted a friend. I wanted someone to open their eyes and just, you know, be conscious with me,” said Dyce tearfully.

Dyce said she also lost an uncle to early on-set dementia, apparently due to pandemic-related “stress,” while she was in the hospital. She said she had horribly emotional hallucinations and dreams where she pleaded and cried to live.

She said she remembers the first news update she watched from the hospital was Gov. Andrew Cuomo recounting the death toll at over 800 people a day.

As of now in 2021, according to the health department, the average day yields one or two confirmed or probable COVID-19 deaths with hospitalizations in the 30s and 40s, a stark difference to last year.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Health Commissioner David Chokshi attribute this success to vaccinations and maintaining health practices citywide. With the Delta variant causing a surge in confirmed cases, they recently made the decision to mandate vaccines for city workers.

De Blasio said he’s exhausted the suggestion to volunteer at this point in the pandemic.

Dyce spent the next month relearning how to eat, talk, and walk, baffling doctors and nurses with her recovery. She said she thought a lot about her life and her purpose at that time.

She was discharged into her mom’s care by the end of May 2020. Eventually, she was able to get back to work in January 2021.

“It pushes me in the role I have now because I feel like the challenges I do have at work are not really challenges. It’s like I got through that so I can get through this. And I share my story with tenants, try to motivate them,” she said. “When you can’t speak though, you learn how to listen. I try to listen to the tenants.”

Doctors still can’t tell her why her body responded to the virus so drastically because of how fast the coronavirus mutates, but they continue to warn her that she could be reinfected if not careful.

Dyce said she got vaccinated as soon as she could in February and her family, seeing her experience, has as well.

“This is real,” she said about the vaccines. “And you never know, it may not be your life, but it could be someone else’s that you take. I wouldn’t know how to live with myself knowing that I infected them.”

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