It was at the end of another grueling day of battling the coronavirus that Dr. Haleema Sajid, a senior resident at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, found a video on her phone from a familiar face with an aw-shucks accent and a thatch of gravity-defying hair.
“Howdy, Haleema. It’s Lyle Lovett saying thanks from Texas, just outside Houston, for everything you’re doing to help other people in this difficult time,” the familiar face said.
Then Lovett proceeded to congratulate the surprised physician on her first wedding anniversary and thanked her “for everything you do.”
“I hope you’re able to take enough of a break from work so you can celebrate,” he said on the video. “I mainly hope you can feel how we who aren’t on the front lines of this pandemic appreciate those of you who are. My family and I pray God continues to bless you and keep you safe in your selfless efforts. The world needs you, we appreciate you.”
Sajid said she was touched.
“I must confess, I am not a country music person, but I know who Lyle Lovett is,” she told NBC News. “It’s nice to know there are people out there thinking of us.”
But Sajid, whose husband is a physician who works at another hospital, also found herself wondering who tipped Lovett off that it was their anniversary.
“I got mine on a Friday afternoon. It was April 10,” she said. “I remember the date because it was day before my wedding anniversary and I was supposed to have the weekend off, but because of Covid-19, I was working.”
Sajid is not the only front-line worker at Maimonides who was left pleased but curious after getting a surprise like this.
While publicly thanking doctors and other front-line workers by cheering and banging on pots has become a daily ritual across America, a quiet conspiracy of kindness that involves some of Hollywood’s biggest names sending thank you videos to Maimonides medics has been going on for weeks.
Some 250 physicians and nurses at the hospital have gotten a morale boost out of the blue from a big name actor or entertainer who, mysteriously, knew when their birthday or anniversary was, which soccer team they rooted for, or that they were into rock climbing.
Staffers have been buzzing about the celebrity videos internally for months, but the secret started to leak out only recently after several doctors posted videos they had received from actors like Jamie Foxx, Anne Hathaway, Paul Bettany and Rob Morrow on the web.
“I’m very surprised we’ve been able to keep this secret for long,” said the prime mover behind the operation, an instructor at the hospital who asked not to be identified “to keep the mystery going as long as it can.”
“The quote I have heard a bunch of times is, ‘How do they know that about me?’” the instructor said. “That’s been part of the fun.”
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And getting the A-listers to participate has been surprisingly easy, he added.
“There has been an overwhelmingly beautiful human response to all of this,” the instructor said. “I was thinking maybe 20 videos would be made, but we’ve gotten over 250. And in lots of them the celebrities say at some point, ‘It would be an honor to meet you some day.’”
The effort has produced some much-needed laughs, too.
“In one case we had a young doctor from Pakistan who was telling us about this lovely note she got and she clearly didn’t know who the celebrity was,” he said. “When I told the celebrity who wrote her, the celebrity was delighted. She said she was thrilled that the doctor responded to her humanness rather than her celebrity.”
The first of the videos began landing in the doctors’ inboxes in March, while Maimonides was besieged with desperately ill people and hospital staffers were bending under the pressure.
“The idea came about while we were talking about what we could do to help boost morale,” the instructor said. “I used to work in theater and I decided to call some friends who became famous and ask them if they would be willing to send a supporting video to a doctor. You know, a little pick-me-up.”
One of the people the instructor pitched was a well-known TV writer and playwright who asked to be identified only by her first name, Jackie.
“I am having some folks make very short video thank you-encouragement cards for my doctors,” the instructor wrote. “Nothing public or viral — just a personalized message to a specific person on the front line that I will send as a text as they begin or end a shift.”
The instructor said he was providing the name of the doctor and some personal detail, like a recent promotion or wedding, to help make the video more intimate.
“That message is emailed or sent by text to me,” he wrote. “I send the message to the health care worker. That way everything stays personal. Private.”
Jackie said she was hooked right away. She said she had been trying to write but was too distracted by the unfolding tragedy around her.
“He explained it to me and I said, ‘Oh my God, I know lots of actors,’” Jackie said. “So I started with my friends. I sent his email to the actors and TV bosses and it just took off.”
Jackie said they both agreed that the best way to make this work was to keep it underground for as long as possible.
“We were very committed to it being private and intimate,” Jackie said. “We weren’t going to post on social media. We didn’t want it to become a vehicle for getting attention for ourselves or the actors involved.”
The first appeals for help went out around March 25.
“The next thing I know I am getting text messages from celebrities, all unrequested, asking if they can help,” the instructor said.
And the videos soon followed.
“May I call you Moaz?” asks “Avengers” series actor Paul Bettany in his video to Dr. Moaz Zia. “We don’t know each other, wish I did.”
Then Bettany, a fan of the British soccer team Arsenal, proceeded to rib Zia about his allegiance to FC Barcelona. “I am thinking of you and I am grateful to you for your courage,” he said in closing.
Morrow, who became known playing a New York City doctor marooned in Alaska in the “Northern Exposure” TV series, sent a video thank you to Dr. Poroshat Shekarloo and let slip he was working on a show about rock climbing, which happens to be one of the doctor’s favorite pursuits.
One of the most prolific video makers was Tim, a critically acclaimed film and stage actor who also wanted to be identified just by his first name “because this is about the doctors, not about me.”
“I said I’m going to open my Rolodex and get some of my friends to help out,” he said. “I got very enthusiastic about it. I was just very shameless with everyone I reached out too.”
Soon some major Hollywood players were on board, Tim said.
“That includes three Oscar winners, many nominees, lots of very exciting people reaching out to a hard-working doctor or a nurse,” he said. Meanwhile, Tim cranked out at least 10 thank you videos by himself.
“I would get a brief bio and create a monologue directly to that person,” he said. “I saw some of the other videos that were sent in and some of them were unbelievably sweet, something a health care worker can keep forever.”
Tim said making these video messages turned out to be an unexpected balm for him too.
“For a week and a half, it was definitely a part of each day,” he said. “Sitting in my apartment quarantine with no applicable skills to help during a pandemic, I was simply grateful for something to do. Grateful for the chance to say thanks.”