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Long Island Community Hospital

Bud Conway and Kalpana Astras outside the camper where Nic Astras is staying during the ongoing pandemic. Photo by Kyle Barr

At the end of a grueling 12 hour shift as an internal medicine resident at Long Island Community Hospital in East Patchogue, Setauket resident Nicolas Astras can’t simply enter his home, put his feet up on the couch and relax, not anymore, not since the pandemic hit Long Island hospitals like a tidal wave. 

Drawings Kalpana’s daughter drew for her father. Photo by Kyle Barr

He has a wife and three kids, ages 13, 10 and 5. For all he knows, he is covered in COVID-19. If he wanted to go in and take off his clothes and shower, he knows he could potentially spread the virus to other parts of the house and to his family members.

Astras’ wife, Kalpana, said her husband had few choices. He could have lived in an unused hotel room or house, but that would have been a bitter and depressing pill to swallow, having nobody to come home to, nobody to talk to. 

Then, Kalpana said after friends referred her to Facebook group RVs 4 MDs, the family was given a third option, one that while nowhere near as good as getting to be home with the family, it would offer a degree of separation and homeyness, despite the need to be separated.

“It has given us an area where he can be secluded from us so he cannot give us anything,” Kalpana said. “It makes him feel safe that he’s not spreading it.”

From the street, it seems like the Grey Wolf camper parked in Nicolas and Kalpana Astras’ Setauket driveway would just be a summer getaway vehicle. Though now it has become a saving grace. It belongs to Bud Conway, a Farmingville resident who heard about the Facebook group through a family member. Not having an account, he signed up and put his name down as having a camper. Soon, he was linked with the Astras family, and that was that.

Kalpana, who herself is still working full time at a clinical trials company, takes in her husband’s clothes to be washed, trying to be careful around them. She also stocks up the fridge and makes meals for the doctor when he goes to work. Every time she enters the camper, she wears an N95 mask and is careful when touching anything.

Though it’s not completely isolated. The daughter’s bedroom overlooks the driveway on the second floor, and when the husband walks out to get air in the morning, the daughter talks with him and connects.

Despite how thankful the family is, Conway said it wasn’t much, even with him and an electrician friend traveling there to help fix the camper when something was broken. With him not using it, he said it was the least he could do.

“I’m not the hero here,” he said. “It’s just a camper, not a kidney.”

RVs 4 MDs started March 24 as just Texan Emily Phillips, the wife of an emergency room physician, was convinced to ask the community if anyone had an RV for her husband. Days later she founded the Facebook group,which has since blown out into a nation-spanning movement to connect camper and trailer owners to doctors who need to be able to self-quarantine.

But over a month since that started, as the number of hospitalized patients decline in the county, officials say there is some hope on the horizon. But for hospital workers still in the midst of it, the silver linings usually come not from thinking of work, but with communicating with the family.

“Yesterday he said they extubated some patients, which is good news — it’s a flicker of good news,” Kalpana said. “It’s really to boost his morale, to keep him home with us.”

Inside the camper, a number of index cards lay on the table in the suffused light. They show pictures of rainbows, hearts and messages saying, “We love You” and “Your Our Hero,” all from his kids.

“My 10-year-old, her way of coping is with art,” Kalpana said. “Every time I come in with food, she does artwork, and he just collects them on the table.”