In May, Dr. Puja Patel took a vacation to Italy. But like many people looking to escape, she struggled to do so — work and real life always hover, buzzing with cellphone notifications and reminders. For Dr. Patel and her three friends on the trip, all of whom spent the pandemic working in hospital emergency rooms, it was about processing what they had just experienced.
“We were trying to strike a weird balance,” she said, “not talking about work but, also, we wanted to talk about work. We were trying to take our minds off it but have an outlet at the same time.”
It wasn’t just that they worked at the center of a pandemic but also that they were in the process of becoming doctors just as the crisis hit. Dr. Patel was in the second year of her residency at Mount Sinai Medical Center on the Upper East Side when the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic in March of 2020.
During the last week of that month, deaths from Covid-19 tripled in the city and the total case count surged past 30,000. To accommodate the overflow of bodies, refrigerator trucks were set up outside of the hospital where Dr. Patel worked.
“In emergency medicine we’re taught to prioritize the sickest patient, someone who’s not breathing or doesn’t have a pulse,” Dr. Patel said. “But in a pandemic, how do you prioritize who is sicker? They were all really sick and we didn’t have treatments. We did everything we could, we put everything we had into it and people were still not making it. They didn’t have any family by them so often you were the only person with them when they died. There was a very real degree of trauma bonding. It made a lot of us working together a lot closer.”
On the Italy trip, Dr. Patel wasn’t just processing the past but feeling anxious about the future. Her residency at Mount Sinai was ending and so was the housing that came with it. She knew that when she returned from her trip, she had just a few weeks to get into a new place.
She already had a job lined up at a sister hospital, Mount Sinai Queens, which helped guide her search. Hoping to be within walking distance, she focused on Astoria and Long Island City.
Dr. Patel, who was living with a roommate, started looking in April, four months before she needed to move. “It was my first time looking for my own apartment so I was really antsy,” she said. “And I enjoy StreetEasy. It’s very therapeutic.”
She saw more than 20 places; there were a few she thought were OK but she didn’t want to settle, and the places she was truly interested in didn’t last. “I would see an apartment online and it’d be gone in a day,” she said. “The market was moving so fast. I started getting really tired of it.”
Before she left for Italy, she felt a need to sign a lease for a less-than-ideal apartment, just for the peace of having the matter settled. But then a new possibility came her way. “The building found me,” she said. “I don’t know how, but they found me. I got an email about it.”
She had received a few developer solicitations during her search, but none caught her eye like Astoria West, a new development from Cape Advisors.
There were images of bright apartments and a roof deck with a pool, views of the East River and proximity to every kind of cuisine she could hope for. And it was, at least in warm weather, walking distance from the hospital.
The only problem was that they wouldn’t have units ready to show before she left for her trip. “I remember talking to my friend saying, ‘What should I do? Should I sign for another place or should I wait to see this place?’”
She decided the gamble was worth it. “If I hadn’t gotten this email, I probably would have taken something I wasn’t excited about just to be done.”
She consulted her friends while in Italy. “I remember freaking out to all of my friends because I got a message saying they were starting to show. I was thinking, ‘Oh my god, all those apartments are going to be gone in a day because that’s what had been happening to me.’”
$3,300 | Astoria, Queens
Puja Patel, 30
Occupation: Emergency room doctor
On Medical Training: Dr. Patel says that becoming a doctor requires patience more than anything. “Think about how many years you put into this, the training,” she said. “My other friends have been living quote-unquote real life for years now. They’ve been building careers, sending C.V.s, writing cover letters — I just did that for the first time. My friends were like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what we do in the real world.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, I guess I’m finally here.’”
On Central Park: During the early days of the pandemic, Dr. Patel was grateful to live a short walk from Central Park. “The park became a huge thing,” she said. “You could still kind of physically distance but see people. I spent more time in the park during that one summer than I did my last 20-something years in New York.”
Not only did her friends console her, but they pressed her for details: The building sounded promising, and they, too, were in the market. “It was sort of like a joke,” she said, “‘Oh, maybe we’ll all end up in the same building.’”
When they returned, not only was there still an apartment available for Dr. Patel, but there was one for each of her friends. “Everyone who was on the Italy trip with me is in this building,” she said.
Over the past five months, Dr. Patel’s appreciation for her new one-bedroom hasn’t diminished. She’s grateful for the floor-to-ceiling windows, the walk-in closet and modern kitchen. “Even though I don’t cook much,” she said.
She likes the quiet, too: “In my old place, I was so used to hearing ambulances and people on the street. I don’t really have that anymore. The first week in my new place I kept thinking this is really weird and I realized, ‘Wow, I don’t wake up in the middle of the night anymore.’”
For the first time in her life she doesn’t have to tiptoe around a roommate either, which is particularly meaningful with an ever-changing work schedule. She said she can come home from late night shifts and sit down to a full meal without disturbing anyone. “This is my first time living alone,” she said. “It’s phenomenal. I can never go back to having a roommate.”
It’s that sense of privacy, knowing the door won’t open unexpectedly. “I can do whatever I want, whenever I want,” she said. “I don’t need to split time in the bathroom in the morning.”
When she does want to see friends, they aren’t far. A restaurant recently opened on the ground floor of the building and she’s been meeting up with her fellow emergency room doctors there. “We talk about work but we also we talk about all kinds of things,” she said.
“It’s really nice to have my friends who do really get what I’m going through. And it feels good to say I’m exactly where I wanted to be with my life at this stage. I just turned 30, it was the end of my residency, I spent so many years of my life going toward become a doctor — that’s all done. Now I’m a doctor with my own apartment. It all makes it feel like I’ve grown up. Everything is new.”