Dr. Joseph Costa, head of the division of critical care at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland, died on July 25 after a month-long battle with COVID-19, the hospital confirmed to Heavy. He was 56 years old.
About 20 colleagues held a vigil and put their hands on him as Costa lay dying, the Baltimore Sun reported. At around 4:45 a.m. on Saturday, he died in the arms of David Hart, his husband of 28 years.
“I keep thinking, now there is one less ICU doctor to care for pandemic patients in Baltimore,” Hart told the Baltimore Sun.
More than 4.4 million cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in the U.S. and over 150,000 people have died, according to Johns Hopkins University. Maryland now has had 85,524 confirmed cases and more than 3,300 deaths, state government data show.
As the pandemic has spread across the country, 574 healthcare personnel have died of COVID-19, which is likely an underestimation due to incomplete data, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Hart, who told the Baltimore Sun that his husband was the bravest man he ever knew, said he gets very angry when he sees people not wearing masks. “It makes me want to take a bar of soap and write on my car’s rearview window that my husband who saved so many lives died of COVID-19. Wear a mask!'”
“This disease will take you out in a heartbeat,” he said to the Washington Post.
The Mercy Medical Center issued a joint letter from Sister Helen Amos, RSM, and Mercy President and CEO Dr. David Maine, who said Costa had “dedicated his life and career caring for the sickest patients”:
Joe was more than a trusted colleague; he was also a true friend to many. He dedicated his life and career to caring for the sickest patients. And when the global pandemic came down upon us, Joe selflessly continued his work on the front lines—deeply committed to serving our patients and our City during this time of great need. His memory will live on as an example to us all.
Plans for a memorial service are underway, according to the hospital statement.
Here’s what you need to know:
Costa Was a Top Student at Medical School & Worked at Mercy Medical Center for 23 Years
Costa held a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Virginia and received his medical education at the University of Maryland, where he was inducted into the Alpha Omega Alpha Medical Honor Society, a national honorary society for top-performing medical students.
He graduated in 1990 and completed his residency at the University of Maryland, according to Mercy Medical Center spokesperson Dan Collins. He joined Mercy in 1997, with specialties in pulmonary and critical care, the hospital website shows. He also had board certifications in internal medicine.
Costa became chief of critical care in 2005 and served as an officer of the Mercy medical staff from 2010 to 2016, the hospital said. His roles included secretary/treasurer, vice president and president.
Apart from his clinical responsibilities, he was also “deeply dedicated to Mercy’s mission and values,” according to the hospital. He chaired Mercy’s Medical Morals Committee and served as a member of the Mercy Health Services Board of Trustees Mission and Corporate Ethics Committee.
Costa also held faculty positions at his alma mater, serving as an adjunct assistant professor until his death.
Costa Was Beloved by Patients & Their Families
Costa was known for both his clinical expertise and caring personality. “He was beloved by his patients and their family members—known for his warm and comforting bedside manner as well as his direct and informative communication style. When he counseled our patients and families, he did so with great compassion and empathy,” the hospital said in a statement sent to Heavy.
Kevin Parks, Catholic Review visual journalist and former Mercy employee, told WBAL-TV that both he and his father had been Costa’s patients in the ICU. “Just his steady presence, his demeanor, his confidence. He was never high, never low. He was steady. He always smiled, always had your back, told you like it was with compassion,” Parks said in the interview.
Baltimore resident Michael Green, one of Mercy’s first COVID-19 patients, was also treated by Costa. He was admitted on March 18 and wasn’t discharged until June 29, according to the Baltimore Sun.
While Green was in a coma, his wife Gail called Costa daily to check on her husband, the Sun reported. She said in an interview that Costa was honest about her husband’s condition but was comforting and always made her feel there was hope:
He said to me, ‘Because families can’t be here, we not only think of your husband as our patient, but you’re our patients as well. And we’re here to take care of you as much as we’re here to take care of your husband.’
Green, who has now returned home, told the Sun that he regretted not being able to thank Costa in person. “The thing that disappoints me the most is that one day I would hope that I could have walked back into Mercy and thank him and the rest of the staff that worked under him and tell him how much I appreciated what he did. And now that won’t happen,” he said.
Neda Freyha said Costa was her attending physician during her residency. She said on Twitter that she felt much calmer when Costa went to help her with caring for “very sick patients.”
A Tree Will Be Planted at the Hospital in Memory of Costa
An outpouring tribute appeared online after Costa’s death. In a statement, Costa’s alma mater, the University of Maryland School of Medicine praised him for his selflessness and commitment to his job. Stephen N. Davis, MMBS, the Theodore Woodward Chair of the university’s department of medicine, said the following:
Dr. Costa was a great clinician, teacher, mentor, and role model for our medical students and Internal Medicine residents. It is a tremendous loss to the community, the City of Baltimore and the State of Maryland. We send our sincere condolences to his family. He was one of the most accomplished and brave clinicians that we have been privileged to know.
“I have profound admiration and the deepest respect for Joe as a clinician, colleague and friend. Mercy Medical Center and the Mercy family richly benefitted from Joe’s wisdom, compassion, insight and thought, ethical approach to his work and the families he served,” Mercy hospital’s Maine said in a statement.
Costa’s husband Hart told the Baltimore Sun that a housekeeper knelt by Costa’s bed and “shook with grief” and said, “I’m now losing my best friend.”
The Mercy Medical Center has announced it will plant a tree in the ICU’s ninth-floor garden this summer in memory of Costa.
Costa Remained on the Frontlines Despite Having an Autoimmune Disorder
Costa spoke three languages and was fluent in German and Italian, his LinkedIn profile shows. His husband told the Baltimore Sun that their house was filled with books and Costa had been reading Italian works in the past three years.
Hart also told the Washington Post that Costa played several musical instruments, including the piano, clarinet and mandolin, which he had just learned to play recently.
The couple had a farm in Shaftsbury, Vermont, and they enjoyed spending time there to escape from work, the Baltimore Sun reported. Hart also used it as a shelter during the pandemic at Costa’s advice, according to the Washington Post.
After Costa tested positive for COVID-19, he told Hart to return to sheltering at their farm. But Hart still contracted the virus, the Washington Post reported. While Hart recovered, Costa went into a much more devastating situation and was put on a ventilator.
Before he got sick, Costa remained on the frontlines even though he had a rare underlying autoimmune disorder, according to the Washington Post. Hart said in an interview with the Post that during the pandemic his husband “felt it was important to shoulder the same risks” as his staff.