Unsung Heroes

The walls of Carmen Marino’s office, tucked away in Irving College, are adorned with “Thank you Carmen” signs and cards. As a supervising janitor at Stony Brook University, she manages the custodial staff of the eight colleges that comprise Mendelsohn Quad and H Quad. And if her staff was a tightly knit group before the pandemic, the bonds that held them together have only been fortified.

“We became – oh, my God – a big family over here and everybody helped one another and we still like it over here,” Carmen said. “That’s the only way we can help.” 

They brought each other homemade remedies to stay healthy like tea made of ginger, garlic, lemons and honey. Carmen dropped off groceries and soup for workers who had to quarantine at home. Back at work, they prayed together, especially during the early dark days of the pandemic when no one knew what was going to happen. “You feel like you’ve gone from one home to another home in this environment around here,” she said.

In March 2020 – after the university extended spring break, then announced all classes would be online for the remainder of the semester and students needed to vacate the dorms – it was Carmen and her crew who cleaned. Morning, noon and night, they cleaned, working 12-hour days. Carmen is the only person with skeleton keys so she had to open each door to every room and go in first. They disinfected every room, spraying and wiping down high-touch areas – desks and door knobs and counters – scrubbing toilets and packing away the belongings students left behind.

“At the beginning, we didn’t know because they were saying that it’s in the air or if you touched things. We were very scared.” 

– Carmen Marino, a supervising janitor at Stony Brook University.

During the height of the pandemic, Carmen’s staff was spread thin. Nurses from Stony Brook University Hospital were sleeping at Ammann College, and soldiers from the United States Army Corps of Engineers who were building field hospital tents stayed in James College. Although the campus was mostly empty, international students who couldn’t go home stayed in West Apartments in suites that needed cleaning. The Student Health Center, across from Carmen’s quads, was also taking COVID patients. 

Carmen’s workers needed to split up to cover ground across campus from Mendy Quad to West Apartments. Suddenly, working together became a risk. Some had vulnerable family members and worried about bringing the virus home. “At the beginning,” Carmen said, “we didn’t know because they were saying that it’s in the air or if you touched things. We were very scared.” 

They took precautions – tossing their possibly contaminated clothes in the laundry and cleaning themselves before entering their own homes, washing and disinfecting their hands over and over again, even wiping down their shoes. Carmen still finds herself wearing a mask even when she doesn’t have to. 

Carmen grew up in Ecuador. After high school, she worked for the Peace Corps for four years teaching Spanish. She came to America in 1990 hoping she could continue teaching in middle schools and high schools. But her expectations didn’t match reality. “I didn’t know that I have to have a license, a place, or something. In my mind, I was just going to their house and teaching them.” Fear of the virus became concrete for Carmen when a cousin from Ecuador died. “I got very scared,” she said. “I was careful for all the people working here.” 

Early on, one of Carmen’s workers, Verona Macko, contracted COVID-19. Based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and her family’s insistence, she should have gone to a hospital when her fever reached 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit. But Verona worked as a nursing assistant in the intensive care unit and emergency room at Stony Brook University Hospital, and with her medical training and experience she decided to stay home. “I knew if I got in and I got intubated, that would have been it,” she explained. “I wouldn’t have the strength to fight on my own.” 

At the time, she had a second job as a home care attendant, but she couldn’t go back to that job after she recovered. She felt isolated. But her experience at Stony Brook was different, she said. “When I came back, I was still in the fold. We all worked as one.” 

To this day, Verona takes precautions. She can’t believe it when she sees people spitting on the ground or coughing without their masks on. “You really don’t know what you’re dealing with and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy because it’s not something good, and not all of us have the strength and resistance to fight it.”