Every day, hundreds of registered nurses are being deployed from across the country to COVID-19 hotspots like New York City and New Orleans. Heather Smith of Olathe is a former pediatric home health care supervisor who now works at an orthopedic hospital. She heeded the call for nurses and in mere days found herself working in one of NYC’s busiest, major metropolitan hospitals. We caught up with Smith after she was winding down from a 14-hour day.
How did you end up landing in NYC?
“Unfortunately, at an orthopedic facility, most of our orthopedic surgeries are elective, so we quit doing surgeries unless they were emergencies—say, broken bones. I needed a job. I’ve got bills to pay. I happen to see a news broadcast for a local company who was deploying nurses to New York. And I prayed about it and just thought it was something I could go and do. (Smith says she signed her contract on Friday and was working by the following Wednesday. Now because the demand is so great, nurses are signing contracts and being deployed the following day.)
What was Day 1 like?
“Very surreal, very eye-opening. As a nurse, I knew it was going to be bad. I knew people were going to be sick but knowing it and seeing it are two completely different things. It really puts it into perspective—and cements how serious it is—when you see how sick people are—and how many people are that sick. You get thrown into a shift you’ve got to work—so I really didn’t think about it as much as when I got there as I did on the way home about how crazy-insane that this is happening.”
What’s a typical day like?
“It’s long days—12-14 hours every day. So far, I’ve moved around where they need me. My first day I didn’t have computer access, so I couldn’t do anything I my own—so I paired with another travel nurse and between the two of us we had nine cases. She had computer access and I did all the treatments and meds because we’re trying not to go into the rooms with sick patients more than we have to. It didn’t make sense for us to both go in.”
Honestly, how’s your head?
“Mentally, there are days that are more draining than others. Today was do-able. Yesterday was very draining. I worked in the ICU. I ended up having patients for about six hours—and they’re very, very sick. And they’re not all going to make it, unfortunately.”
What are telltale things are you consistently seeing over and over and over?
“Respiratory issues are what most people experience—trouble breathing, shallow breathing, increased respiratory rate, running a fever or they just feel horrible—extremely sick with body aches. That’s what patients report for the most part. But the ones who are truly getting sick are having a lot of difficulty breathing. It hurts them to breathe and they feel like they cannot get enough oxygen.”
What ages or demographics are you seeing?
“I personally haven’t seen any kids, but it’s all different ages of adults—healthy ones and not healthy ones. I do know that it changes pretty dramatically. I had a patient who was doing really well and they were getting ready to discharge him and he started having increased respiratory issues. He was reporting he couldn’t breathe and it hurt to breathe. It can change—fast.”
What’s the mood at your hospital?
“The permanent staff here is getting to the point where they are running on fumes. They’ve been doing this for several weeks before relief started coming—but they’re all very grateful they have people here helping. Unfortunately, many are out sick—so they’re short-staffed. They’ve got a big influx of patients, and so we’re helping relieve some of that burden and help patients. Plus, they need days off too.”
Real talk. What do you want people to know?
“This is real. This is not some hoax. People are sick. Not everybody is going to get this, not everybody is going to get this sick—but for the ones who do get sick—it can be deadly. We need to make sure we do our part to slow this—social distancing, washing your hands, not being out when you’re sick, covering your cough—all things to try and slow this.
The medical field cannot handle this mass influx of patients all at one time. That’s why I’m here. They don’t have the staff to handle all of the sickness right now. We have got to do our part to slow this down to give time for other places to prepare and give time for vaccinations to be created.”
I hope you’re taking care of yourself.
“I’m trying. I spend time in prayer. I have several prayers I say over and over. I try to talk to my kids and my family and they help keep my spirits up. I have a lot of friends back home who are praying for me—and that’s awesome. They’re praying for me and all the other medical workers here and the patients—it’s very uplifting to see all their support. I’m just trying to sleep when I’m home because, well, sleep is important.
I have a ritual when I walk into my hotel room. I literally strip by the door once I get in. Everything comes off. I don’t walk in with my scrubs, my shoes, nothing. I go straight to the shower and then Lysol everything so that it can kill whatever is potentially on my clothes or belongings.
I wear my mask everywhere there are people. I’m trying not to get this. I know I’m at risk because I’m around positive patients. If I’m in a store or even riding the bus to the hospital, I wear my mask—and all day at the hospital, obviously. Again, I’m trying.”
Interview condensed and minimally edited for clarity.