By Sean Kirst
Published 5:30 p.m. April 30, 2020
James Little loved it whenever he shared a shift with John Poleon at the Buffalo General Medical Center, reverence he boils down to a thought Little knows his colleagues would embrace.
“In a lot of ways,” he said, “it was like working with your grandpa.”
Poleon, a fellow X-ray technician at Buffalo General, died last week. He is the first known front-line hospital worker in greater Buffalo lost to a virus that had claimed 254 lives in Erie County as of Wednesday, leaving Poleon's colleagues to grieve over what they describe as his distinct and salty integrity.
Little, who is helping collect donations at the hospital for Poleon's family, said his friend always used the stairs, never the elevator, and only made use of cash, disdaining credit cards. During breaks from working his “bazoons off,” as he loved to put it, he would ask younger workers why they were staring at their phones.
As his wife Cindy recalls, it was not long ago that he grudgingly accepted a flip phone – one he typically left on his dresser – only because his daughters insisted he carry it when he was in the woods, hunting by muzzleloader.
There should always be places, he told them, where the world cannot reach you.
Once Poleon bought a car or truck, he would drive it “until it won’t go anymore,” Cindy said. He liked unsweetened black tea, preferably Red Rose, and ate cake without frosting. While he loved talking sports, including the Bills and Sabres, he was one of those guys who would get a name wrong and figure that was close enough, forever.
New England tight end Rob Gronkowski was always “Rob Gronowski,” said Little, a union brother in the Communications Workers of America, Local 1168. Tech Lynn Siener grew so accustomed to hearing “Lynn Steiner” that she once responded to a hospital page for a real person of that name, thinking it must be from Poleon.
At 63, he was beloved for his workplace selflessness, for the way he would always do a little extra to allow his co-workers to stretch out lunch or leave on time. If he saw anyone building toward a heated argument, fellow tech Patricia Carey recalls, he would abruptly erupt into a tension-busting version of “Kumbaya.”
"Things were just always better when he was here," said Rebecca D'Amaro, another colleague, a gift that seemed eternal because he so rarely called in sick.
When he missed work just before Easter, his friends guessed something was wrong.
Poleon had tested positive for Covid-19. He died April 24, eight days after he was admitted to Buffalo General and more than 30 years after beginning a career that his colleagues say exemplifies the unsung stalwarts of the medical profession.
No one can be absolutely sure how he became infected, but those who love him want you to understand: He could have chosen to stay home. While his mission typically involved surgical X-rays, he cheerfully embraced other tasks once elected surgeries were put on hold.
"John wasn't the one to say no," Cindy said of work that included cleaning public hallways and elevators, a task of high significance in a pandemic. Juliette Mader, Kaleida Health's director of surgical services at Buffalo General, spoke with gratitude of Poleon's diligence, of the way he did “whatever he was asked.”
Cindy Poleon said her husband worried about Covid-19, yet still did his job. Taneshia Davis, another X-ray tech and a close friend, spoke of Poleon as an "awesome guy, an awesome worker, an awesome friend" who had accumulated a mountain of sick time over the years. He could have simply "burned it" and stayed home.
“Here’s a man who didn’t have to come in,” Davis said, “a man who was here only because he wanted to help.”
She and her colleagues say Poleon was a legend long before Covid-19. Mary Janice Keller, a nurse who now serves as a vice-president with the CWA local, said Poleon’s shout of “X-ray!” as he walked into recovery rooms still resonates with generations of Buffalo General staff.
He graduated from both the old Seneca Vocational High School and Trocaire College, where he did his X-ray training, Cindy said. The couple met when they both worked at a wax factory, marrying just before Poleon enlisted in the Army – service that led years later to his deployment in the Desert Storm combat operation.
The couple raised two daughters, Janice and Melissa, and Poleon was close to grandsons Patrick, Adian, Nathan and Tyler. While the family lived on the West Side, Poleon liked “outdoorsy things” like hunting, fishing or riding an ATV, Cindy said, and he was a regular – joined by Adian – in Buffalo’s bicycling “slow roll.”
The Buffalo Bandits, the city's lacrosse team, was another passion. He and Cindy held season tickets, which gave Poleon the chance for many one-on-one outings with his grandsons. With such colleagues and union brethren as Michael Dunphy and Karen Taggart, he was a regular on a Kaleida Health volleyball team. Cindy often showed up to watch, reinforcing what his teammates sensed.
“He was all about his family,” Dunphy said.
For years, Poleon seemed indestructible and indefatigable, which only underlined his family's fear and then relief two years ago, when he went through successful treatment for prostate cancer.
He returned to work, seemingly back to his tireless, stair-climbing self until the virus hit him hard this month. While Cindy also tested positive, she was asymptomatic – even as Covid-19 left her husband struggling to breathe and trying to push back the symptoms through his fierce will.
“He didn’t want to go to the hospital,” Cindy said. He kept arguing he was well enough to stay at home, even after the ambulance crew arrived and told him there was no choice.
Poleon was admitted to one of the wings devoted to Covid patients at Buffalo General. While his wife and children were not allowed to be at his side, their one consolation was the proximity of a hospital family he had known for more than 30 years.
Some of the X-ray techs, draped in protective gear, found ways to stop by, including Davis and another worker. They told him they were checking in to help out Cindy, and Poleon responded in exactly the way they would expect, pushing out the words even as he fought for breath.
“I’m just sitting here,” he said. "They won't let me do nothing."
Rob Prawel, another X-ray tech, spent time with his friend after Poleon's worsening condition required the use of a ventilator, visits that Prawel describes as almost sacred in their intensity.
“The rest of the world doesn’t see what’s going on,” he said of the Covid floors. Prawel spoke of the daily efforts of the medical staff as “stressful, dangerous and sad,” and he said the notion of John Poleon, intubated and battling for his life, shook a hospital in which Poleon was a kind of pillar.
“This was one of our own,” Prawel said.
So Prawel would come in and play songs on his phone by such bands as Grand Funk Railroad or Creedence Clearwater Revival, the classic rock Poleon always loved. He would call Cindy and then put the phone by his friend's ear, or share messages from the family, which always came down to this:
We love you.
Prawel did that at every chance he could, until the day he walked into the room and the bed was empty, without linens. He turned around asked, disbelieving, if Poleon was in a different room.
A quiet nurse responded, "Sorry, Rob. We lost him.”
Someday there will be a memorial in this community to those claimed by this pandemic, and every name will have its own vast gravity and meaning. Among those on the list will be John Poleon, a Buffalo front-line hospital worker taken by Covid-19, whose colleagues see an ethic revered in their city.
Put to the test, he always tried to give someone else a break.