WAYNE, NJ – Grim statistics dominate the headlines during a global health crisis but defeating a pandemic must begin in the hearts and minds of those who step up to the front-lines purposely and without anything to gain but to fulfill a basic-desire to help.

What makes someone put themselves at risk to help others? According to the Passaic County Public Health Supervisor Sandra “Sandy” Cameron, it’s the volunteer spirit.

Cameron supervises operations at the Passaic County COVID testing facility at William Paterson University in Wayne and also manages a group of over four-hundred volunteers for the Passaic County Medical Reserve Corps. “I’m used to seeing people step up when there’s a crisis,” said Cameron, a nurse who was born in the South American country of Guyana and now lives in Paterson.

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TAPinto Wayne interviewed her on a cloudy Wednesday just after the day’s testing was over and before rain began to spit from the sky. The diminutive nurse helped to put the testing site together from the beginning and was asked if she was surprised by the number of people who volunteered to work directly with patients infected with a deadly virus.

“When you have the volunteer spirit, you don’t think about the deadliness of the virus, you think about your neighbor, how you can save a life and how you can make a difference in your community,” said Cameron.

Anthony De Nova, the County Administrator said that the testing site, by necessity is dependent on volunteers. “Other counties have hospitals that are donating services and professionals, but we are doing it purely on the backs of everyday citizens,” he said.  “Every step of the process, we need volunteers. It is very critical to our operation that we have volunteers ready, willing and able to serve.”

One of the volunteers that Cameron, De Nova and head of the Passaic County Health Department, Dr. Charlene Gungil have consistently praised is Dr. Abubakr “Abu” Alfaouri, more affectionately known as ‘Doc Baker.’ Born of a Jordanian father and a Lebanese mother, the Clifton-born, Wayne resident, Arab-American is making a huge difference in Passaic County’s fight against COVID-19.

Doc Baker graduated from Avalon University School of Medicine, attending his first two years on the Caribbean Island of Curaçao and his final two years in Arizona.  “I was supposed to take my last medical exam before my residency, but all the testing centers closed because of the coronavirus,” he said. This gave him the opportunity to volunteer and serve at the testing facility.

“I met Doc Baker on the first day,” said Cameron. “I just felt that ‘care’ about him as a doctor and a person.  I felt he has what it takes; I could tell by the way he speaks and what he says that he really, really cares about the community. He has compassion, kindness and he’s been here every day.”

Doc Baker took on a leadership role at the testing site from the beginning, supervising the collectors and handlers who get the live virus samples from the scared, sick patients who come to the site for testing.  He and his team are covered completely with PPE – Personal Protective Equipment – to protect themselves from the virus.

Early on Doc Baker made himself responsible for his team’s safety, training new volunteers in safety procedures and watching them closely during the day to make sure they do not put themselves at unnecessary risk.

“He’s one of the people I know that I can count on if there’s an emergency,” said Cameron. This was one of the reasons why he was chosen to manage the ‘Hot Zone,’ where samples are being collected from potentially infected patients.

Doc Baker is a humble man and would rather talk about his team. “These people are amazing and awesome,” he said.  “It’s a struggle to get them to even take a break.  When I ask, they tell me: ‘No, we want to finish. Let’s get the job done.’  Every day it’s like pulling teeth just to get them to take bathroom breaks. They’re incredible people.”

He added: “When they say that crisis brings out the best in people, well we see that every day here.  It’s beautiful.”

There were a few people, that Doc Baker wanted singled out.

Jason DeAlessio and Ana Maroldi have been friends since second grade, volunteered together and run the registration team. “They’re wonderful,” said Doc Baker. “They run a really tight ship up there.”

Ahmad Awawdeh is the main runner who is all over the site bringing supplies of all kinds to anyone who needs them.  “He is an EMT in Little Falls and is going to be police officer.  He is awesome,” said Doc Baker.  “All the police officers know him, and he is all over the site.  He is fantastic.”

Sybille Wallace…well she’s a story to herself.

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Tragedy is bound to strike with a deadly virus and hundreds of sick patients. Last week, an older woman died soon after being tested at the center.  Doc Baker was there.

“Kelsey Thompson, one of the volunteer nurses came to me and said that one of the patients was unstable,” he said. Unstable is a term that the team of collectors all use when a patient is in medical distress.

“Because Kelsey is so experienced, she had already taken the patients vitals and medical history. I came immediately and I could tell the patient was in bad shape,” he said. “I was preparing myself to do CPR because she looked like she was going to pass out.”  He called for an EMT and handed her off so they could take her to St. Joseph’s hospital which is only a few minutes away from the testing center.

Later that day, he learned that the woman had died in the ambulance before she reached the hospital.  It was a tough moment for the young doctor and all the volunteers on his team.

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After the patients have all been swabbed and the facility is officially closed, Doc Baker thanks each and every volunteer and says goodbye but the young doctor stays.  He still has work to do.

Cameron meets with Doc Baker and registration team managers Jason DeAlessio and Ana Maroldi for a debrief where they discuss any issues that happened during the days testing and come up with ways to improve. “We’ll talk about negatives, positives and look for things we can do to make things more efficient without sacrificing the safety of the volunteers or the patients.”

Doc Baker’s dedication is just inspiring,” said Cameron. “He works with a will and a purpose and I think Passaic County is safer simply because he is here every day.

Cameron and Doc Baker were asked how they feel after a day of testing.

“I feel fulfilled to some degree and grateful that I can be a part of this, but I remember after the first day, I was, personally, overwhelmed,” said Doc Baker. “I’ve swabbed and collected data as part of my training, but the issue for me was doing it in mass, like this.” 

“I sometimes have a hard time believing that this is really happening in the world and in my town.  Every day I go home and watch the news and I can’t believe how many people have died. I was a teenager when 9/11 happened and that was the first big tragedy of my lifetime. It was devastating; you could feel the depression around you.  But with this, there is way more death and every day that feeling hits me. Honestly, it’s pretty sad,” he said and trailed off, looking toward the horizon, lost in his thoughts.

Cameron answered: “As a nurse, when I lay in my bed at night, I reflect: ‘What have I done today to make somebody better, or feel better?’ That’s a question every nurse has to answer before they close their eyes. And, I always want to have a good positive answer when I close my eyes.”

“When you love what you do, and enjoy what you do, it feels great,” said Cameron. “When I came into public health, I knew I wanted to make a difference, not only at the bedside, but in the life of the members of my community, so every opportunity I get to go out and volunteer, I do.”

If you would like to join this team of amazing volunteers, email: volunteers@passaiccountynj.org