January 23, 2022

Nurses recount working in NYC COVID-19 wards

Photos provided

Kira Read, a former Guthrie Cortland Medical Center nurse who quit her job to treat COVID19 patients in New York, works at Roosevelt Island Medical Center, where she spent six weeks.

While the greater Cortland area has so far been largely spared the ravages of COVID-19, five area health professionals have seen the worst of the pandemic up close.

These five — four nurses and a doctor — worked with coronavirus-infected patients in New York City hospitals.

Four of them — Dr. LouAnne Giangreco and nurses Kansas Underwood, Julie Niederhofer and Emily Crumb all work for Cayuga Medical Center, and were among more than 50 health workers who drove down April 8 to New York City.

All three — and most of the other Cayuga workers — spent a month at the Weill Cornell Medical Center of New York–Presbyterian Hospital. They returned home May 7.

Kira Read, who quit her job at Guthrie Cortland Medical Center, worked at Roosevelt Island Medical Center. She started work April 13 and returned home May 24.

These were potentially hazardous assignments, and all of them said they knew the risks. At least one Cayuga Medical employee contracted COVID19 in the line of duty, but none of Cayuga’s volunteers were hospitalized themselves, and all of them have returned to work, Giangreco said.

“I was petrified going down not knowing at all what I was going into,” Read said. “I had no idea what I was going to be faced with.”

“I think that we all knew that we were coming down there for a reason,” said Underwood, the senior director of emergency services for Cayuga.

Photo provided

Nurses Emily Crumb, left, Edem Balich and Libby Cruz were among more than 50 Cayuga Medical Center health workers who spent a month working with coronavirus patients in the New York-Presbyterian hospital system.

All of them pointed to the age range of gravely ill patients as showing that the coronavirus does not affect only older people, or people with existing health problems. While that is generally the case, all five spoke of patients in their 30s and 40s with no health problems who wound up in intensive care.

But diabetes and obesity were two factors prevalent in many cases, Emily Crumb said.

They also spoke of the high percentage of non-white patients — a rate that health professionals are still trying to understand, Giangreco said, although increased chances of exposure to the virus was one major factor. The pandemic has also exposed disparities that exist in the existing medical system and society in general, she said.

Camaraderie was something they also mentioned — the feeling of working together for a greater common purpose.

Read worked daily with a group of about a dozen nurses from all over the country. They bonded so quickly and deeply that they now plan to have annual reunions, she said. They’re planning the first in Las Vegas.

“We just gelled like almost immediately, and it was just amazing to be able to each share skills that we had,” she said.

“It was pretty fantastic to watch so many different teams from so many different disciplines to come together and be unified,” Underwood said.

In ordinary circumstances, taking a group of workers from one facility and throwing them into a completely new environment would take considerable time to adjust, she said. But at Weill Cornell, the Cayuga workers were immediately plugged into “a smooth, well-oiled machine.”

“In different circumstances, who knows how it would have been,” Underwood said. “But in this circumstance, everyone had the same shared goal.”

Conservation of N95 masks was also reported. Crumb, for instance, would use the same N95 mask for about a week, sanitizing the mask every night in an ultraviolet light box. But near the end of her month in New York, she was issued a new N95 mask every day.

Nurses, Crumb said, would also wear single-use surgical masks over the respirators when working with patients, then throw these outer masks away after visiting each patient.

Read said she and her fellow nurses at Roosevelt Island bought their own respirators early on from a hardware store and used bleach wipes to sanitize them every night.

Crumb returned May 7 and went straight back to work the following week. Before going back to work, she needed to be tested for the coronavirus, and come back with a negative result.

But the transition was a bit of a shock, she said. She normally works in intensive care, but the normal level of stress and activity seemed slow to her after a hectic month in a New York coronavirus ICU ward.

The stress of the experience caught up with her, she said.

“I don’t think I really processed any of it until I got home,” Crumb said.

She also began having sleep problems — something she learned another nurse on the trip was also experiencing. She said she’ll wake up in a panic in the middle of the night. She’ll feel incredibly anxious about something, but she’s not sure what.

Underwood, however, said her transition to home was relatively simple.

“My family, they’re rock stars,” she said. “They made it really easy. … People have been very kind and supportive so it really was a very easy transition.”

Most of them said they would do it again if the opportunity came up.

“I would strongly consider going back down there or wherever I’m needed, honestly,” Read said. “But right now they’re sending nurses home, which is great. That’s a good thing. That’s what we’re hoping for.”