Robert Papik was working for a catering company when the planes struck the Twin Towers on 9/11. He was sent to Ground Zero to help feed first responders and stayed there, day and night, as the search for survivors, and then for remains, continued.
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His sister, Lisa Miele, said, despite the dangerous conditions, he wouldn’t have been anywhere else. “Even if he knew he was risking his life,” she said, “he wanted to make sure everyone had everything they needed. That’s the type of person he was.”
Papik was taken to Stonybrook Hospital on Long Island on March 28, showing symptoms of the new coronavirus. The severe respiratory problems that developed from his time at the World Trade Center site made the virus harder to fight. He called his sister to tell her he was ok, that his blood oxygen levels were strong. That was at 11:30 in the morning.
“By 3:30 in the afternoon, they called to say he was on a ventilator," she said. “The next day, they put him on life support.”
He died from Coronavirus on April 5. He was only 52 years old.
Papik grew up on Long Island, the oldest of seven siblings, five girls and two boys, the one everyone else looked to when they couldn’t see eye-to-eye.
“He was the peacemaker,” Miele said. “Whenever I had a problem or there was a family feud, we would call him and he would say, 'Enough is enough. Stop fighting and get along.' Everybody would listen to him.”
Another sister, Donna Afandor, remembered tagging along with the big brother she loved so much.
“I was a follower," she said. “Whatever he did, I tried to do. I was a tomboy. Wherever he was, I wanted to be.”
He was a divorced dad, the father of four boys, Benny, 36, Joseph, 32, Nicholas, 13, and Corey, 11, and he was a dedicated family man.
“He loved to go fishing and boating,” Afandor said. “Family time was everything to him. He was like the rock of the family. If you needed to talk, he was always there. It’s like my rock crumbled.”
Maria Oliver, Papik’s girlfriend for more than four years, said they were embarking on a new life, planning to move in together.
“He could just be so funny and say things that make you crack up," she said. “He loved with his whole heart. He wanted to be loved and he loved with everything he had.”
Oliver was with him at the terrifying moment when he began to show symptoms of the virus. She knew he had COPD and emphysema, and he was about to sign on to the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund to get help with his medical bills.
“It was Saturday morning,” she said. “I said, 'Why are you breathing like that?' I turned to get his inhaler and his lips were purplish. I screamed for my son to take us to the hospital.”
The person they are most worried about is Papik’s 73-year-old mother, Donna, who lost her other son, George, just five years ago when he was 46.
Theresa Papik, another sister, said, “this was so hard on us, but especially my mother, who could not hold his hand. The nurse held his hand.”
Afandor added, “our mom is having a really hard time, plus she’s battling health issues. She’s waking up in middle of night screaming for my brother to wake up. No mother should have to go through this.”
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Like so many families also grappling with the sudden and random death of someone they love, they’re wondering if Robert’s life could have been saved with a different treatment.
“They were so quick to put him on a ventilator and then on life support,” Theresa Papik said. “It’s like we were being rushed to take him off.”
“I wake up every day and cry and think, would he still have been alive if not for the ventilator?” Afandor said.
And with those doubts, they are left to remember Robert, and deal with the huge hole that COVID-19 has left in their lives.
“Everybody that met him loved him," Miele said. “I adored him. He was such a sweet, loving guy. He always gave his last to anyone that needed it. When I needed my brother, he would be right there, no matter what.”
“It’s the hugs I’ll miss,” Afandor said. “I call them the bear hugs. He’s just a wonderful person. The love between us was so great. It’s so hard. I’m never gonna be able to get that hug anymore or hear his voice.”
And Oliver just wants the man she loved to be remembered. “I want people to know that he was somebody who would do anything for anyone. He loved with everything that he had. He was such a kind person and made me feel so loved. He wanted the people around him to be happy and to have what they needed. He just loved with his whole heart.”
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