Julie Niederhofer’s personal involvement with the coronavirus pandemic started with testing.
Niederhofer, normally a bariatric nurse at Cayuga Medical Center, moved to testing potential coronavirus patients at an Ithaca mall drive-through site.
Although she was scared when she started, what she saw changed her perspective on COVID-19: She met people who were even more scared than she was — people in need of reassurance and compassion.
So when the Homer woman heard about a volunteer group going to Manhattan to help overloaded medical workers at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Niederhofer signed up.
Her mother and her 15-year-old son were less enthusiastic, but Niederhofer was determined to join the group.
“The idea of people dying alone in a hospital just did not sit right with me,” she said. “My family wasn’t too happy about it, but it was an easy decision for me.”
The morning of April 8, Niederhofer joined about 50 other health workers from Cayuga Medical Center on a trip to Manhattan, including several from the greater Cortland area, such as Emily Crumb of Homer, and Kansas Underwood and Dr. LouAnne Giangreco of Dryden.
Many are, like Niederhofer, nursing graduates of Tompkins Cortland Community College.
Photo provided by Julie Niederhofer
Julie Niederhofer, in the blue hat, hugs a co-worker before boarding a busload of Cayuga Medical Center volunteers bound for New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan, where Niederhofer is working in an intensive care unit with coronavirus patients.
Most of the group now works at Weill Cornell Medical Center, while a few doctors have been assigned to Lower Manhattan Hospital, said Giangreco, the chief medical officer for Cayuga Medical Center.
Both hospitals are a part of the New York-Presbyterian Hospital system. The volunteers are scheduled to work there for a month.
The Cayuga nurses are paired with nurses from Weill Cornell. Their job, while helping, is to learn so they can bring that knowledge home with them, Giangreco said. “We wanted to develop a team with expertise in managing COVID patients that we could bring back to upstate New York.”
Underwood said the pairing system helps the hospital maintain a nurse to COVID-19 patient ratio of 1:2 or 1:3.
About 80 percent of the patients in Weill Cornell are now COVID-19 patients, Giangreco said.
“It’s nursing that I never saw coming and never imagined,” Niederhofer said.
The influx of patients has required building new rooms, including negative pressure rooms with separate ventilations systems, Niederhofer said. Some rooms were built in the first two days she was there.
“It’s unbelievable how they’re doing this,” she said.
“What we’ve done in a week usually takes a few months,” Underwood said.
Niederhofer said she continues to be amazed by the professionalism of the hospital staff, considering the circumstances.
“I can’t say enough about how kind they are and how hard they’re working,” she said. “We are definitely in the right place and doing the right thing. This could be any member of my family right there lying there by themselves.”
Crumb said she has been heartened by New Yorkers hanging out their windows and cheering and clapping every night at 7 p.m. to show their support for medical workers. Drivers do it, too — honking at her and her colleagues as they walk to and from work.
“It’s really nice,” she said.
But she’s discouraged by social media posts back home claiming the medical crisis in New York is a hoax, or somehow exaggerated.
“It really bothers me because I’ve seen so many deaths already,” Crumb said. “This is real. I hope our county doesn’t see or experience this, ever.”