Grateful. Honored. Humbled. These are three words that healthcare workers fighting on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic consistently use to describe their feelings. They don’t complain about missing their families (even though they do), that they are potentially putting their lives at risk, or that they have witnessed some of their patients dying.
For as long as the pandemic lasts and people need them, there’s almost no place else that they’d rather be but with their teams caring for patients and saving lives.
“It’s all of us against COVID-19”
Even before she had to put her personal protective equipment (PPE) on, Alison Rowe, associate director of nursing, emergency and cardiac services at Stony Brook University Hospital in Long Island, was working with the hospital’s leadership team to prepare for the onslaught of COVID-19.
“We knew it was coming,” she says, just not exactly when.
They set up operations at the emergency drive-through so that patients who arrived with flu-like symptoms could be separated from those who needed care for injuries and other ailments.
A marquee was erected to serve as a field emergency room where patients could be evaluated for COVID-19 and either admitted or sent home to self-quarantine. An unused building that had once housed the hospital’s cancer center was reopened in case more patients needed care than the hospital could accommodate. “We were ready,” she says.
As individuals who suspected they had COVID-19 began to stream into Stony Brook’s emergency room driveway, Rowe and the rest of the management team were there. “We had to be on the front lines first,” not only to make sure that everything worked as planned, but so that modifications could be made when needed.
“At first, I was outside for four days. It was daunting. I had never shunned 100 people away from emergency in a day,” says the East Setauket resident who has been a nurse for nearly two decades.
Rowe also had to schedule as many as 400 nurses (many more when help from Albany Medical Center arrived) and ensure that the team had the PPE they needed.
After her shift, when she gets home, Rowe has three children, ages 8, 11 and 13 waiting.
“They’re great,” she says, noting that her husband is also working on the front lines. Her sister, who was in quarantine until recently, is now able to help the family out.
“I’m so grateful,” says Rowe. She’s not talking only about her family, but also the team at Stony Brook. “It’s all of us against COVID-19.”
“It’s a privilege to help”
The front lines that Josh Klein sees look a little different from those of the doctors and nurses in the wards. The 42-year-old CEO of Royal Care, a Brooklyn-based home care provider, is also a volunteer EMT for Hatzolah, the largest volunteer ambulance service in the US.
He’s responded to more than 150 emergency calls related to COVID-19.
“I am lucky, I am healthy. It’s a privilege to help in a time of great need,” says the father of seven.
Klein lives in Borough Park, a neighborhood hard hit by the pandemic. When his Hatzolah radio beeps, signaling that emergency help is needed, he immediately responds that he is available. Dressed in a gown, goggles and gloves, he rushes out the door.
“These people [who called for an ambulance] are scared to death. I want to help. I want to be the voice of hope, the voice of calm,” he says.
“I’m there to listen”
Kim de los Reyes, a 34-year-old nurse at Bellevue, sees COVID-19 not only from the front lines but also through the stories of hundreds of nurses who meet on the COVID Couch, a private, weekly Zoom call for nurses caring for patients during the pandemic, which she co-hosts.
“I’m there to listen, to be helpful and impactful,” she says. “In nursing, there’s no such thing as a regular day at the office.”
The key to doing your best is being prepared, according to de los Reyes, which is why she feels so grateful to be working at Bellevue. “The hospital does so many things for us in the background. They do so many things to support us,” she says, which “frees the team to do everything we can to try to save people’s lives.”
That’s hard work — de los Reyes and her colleagues put patients on ventilators when needed, caring for them for weeks at a time. “They are so fragile. Some patients die. But every time one is extubated, they blast a song — Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin’. ”
Before the pandemic, de los Reyes had a personal endeavor — a side business launching The Good Kind, connecting to eco and “kind” products (Instagram.com/thegoodkind.eco). Now, her focus is helping COVID-19 patients. “For me, it’s not over until there’s a vaccine,” she says.
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