Portland writer Dan Koeppel was halfway through co-authoring a book about the COVID-19 crisis when he faced his own medical emergency. While vacationing last summer with his family in New Hampshire, Koeppel, a former editor at the New York Times and a James Beard Award winner, began urinating blood, leading to a diagnosis of stage III bladder cancer.

Portland writer Dan Koeppel Photo by Willy Somma

He’s been through treatment, involving chemotherapy and surgery, and things are looking hopeful. Recent tests in Boston have yielded encouraging results, and this week he got on his mountain bike for the first time in a year. Also this week, Penguin Random House published “Every Minute Is a Day: A Doctor, an Emergency Room, and a City Under Siege,” an account of the chaos of the early days of the pandemic that Koeppel, 59, wrote with his cousin, Dr. Robert Meyer, an emergency room doctor in the Bronx whose experiences treating COVID-19 patients provide an urgent, harrowing narrative.

Koeppel celebrated with a virtual launch at Longfellow Books in Portland on Wednesday, and Meyer was scheduled to appear on “Good Morning America” on Thursday. Koeppel, who moved to Portland two years ago and lives in the West End with his wife and two young boys, finished the book while undergoing cancer treatment.

“I am lucky to be here. So far, in two sets of Boston probes the results have been negative. I am good. I had severe complications in January, ended up in Maine Medical and almost didn’t make it out. But I made it through that,” Koeppel said this week. “I am super-grateful to be alive at this point, super-grateful to be making a living as a writer and to be living in Portland and able to ride my bike with my kids.”

Koeppel is a former executive editor at the Times’s Wirecutter and author of a previous book, “Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World.” He won a James Beard Award for his writing in 2011, and has a screenwriting credit for the movie “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

The genesis of “Every Minute Is a Day” was a series of texts between cousins during the early days of the pandemic. Koeppel was home in Portland reading about the unfolding COVID-19 crisis in New York, while his cousin was in the ER at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, which was overwhelmed and ravaged by the coronavirus.

“How are you doing? I’m worried for you,” Koeppel wrote.

“Hanging by a thread,” his cousin replied.

Dr. Robert Meyer Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Their correspondence was in confidence, private texts between cousins. “He just needed an outlet,” Koeppel said. “He said, ‘I need someone to talk to. This is traumatizing.’ So I told him, ‘Keep talking to me. Just keep doing it.’ ”

With his nose for news, Koeppel knew he had an important story to tell. He told his cousin, “Later down the road, if this is something you want to let the public in on, we will talk about it.”

Barely a week passed and Meyer told Koeppel he wanted to write a book. “He said, ‘This is something people need to hear about,’ so I called up my agent, explained who my cousin was and what we were doing, and with his permission I sent my agent samples of my cousin’s notes,” Koeppel said.

Another week later, they had a book deal. Over the ensuing months, Koeppel served as an outlet for Meyer to convey the stress, challenges and turmoil of his job during the onslaught of the pandemic. Meyer sent texts during stolen moments on the floor, wrote emails during times of reflection, and left voicemails when he had something he needed to verbalize. Together, they interviewed Meyer’s colleagues, many of whom spoke about their experiences openly.

Written in the first-person from the perspective of Meyer on the ER floor, “Every Minute Is a Day” is Meyer’s account of his experiences, of the life-and-death decisions patients and families faced, and the relationships among the doctors, nurses and members of the medical team.

“Rob is a really beloved character in his emergency room. He has been there so long, he is someone everyone likes, and he is extremely gregarious. A lot of people talked to him who might not have talked to other people,” Koeppel said.

The book tells stories of grief, despair, resilience and medical heroism. It was originally going to be a diary, but that idea changed quickly. “It was not emotional enough, not deep enough. It didn’t say anything,” Koeppel said. “It was an episode of ‘ER,’ and that is not what we wanted to do.”

The cousins wrote the book together, Koeppel said. “We’re two Jewish guys from the Queens who are related to each other. We’ve known each other all our lives. It was very natural,” he said.

Koeppel credits his cousin for saving his life. When blood turned up in his urine during a gathering at his wife’s family cabin on Welch Island in Lake Winnipesaukee in summer 2020, Koeppel right away called his cousin, who helped arrange diagnostic tests at his hospital in New York. Treatment was difficult and so is recovery, Koeppel said.

“It’s the kind of cancer that requires vigilance. It was not an easy case. So I am down in Boston every three months to be probed and scanned and poked and monitored, and that is something that will go on somewhat indefinitely. It’s not fun to be in the medical system, constantly having to make appointments and deal with insurance all the time. It’s almost as life-changing as the disease itself. But I am lucky to be around to do that.”

And grateful.


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