‘I’ve Always Had the Heart to Serve’: USF College of Nursing Students Recount Their Month in NYC
Two USF College of Nursing students spent most of April and into May caring for COVID-19 patients in New York City hospitals during the height of the coronavirus crisis.
They were among thousands recruited when New York leaders pleaded for out-of-state nurses to come relieve overwhelmed health care providers.
Nursing students Angelica Bernal and Drew Archer signed up to be deployed into the hardest hit neighborhoods of the pandemic.
Bernal, a PhD nursing student currently on leave from USF, reported to a city hospital on Roosevelt Island that health officials reopened to increase capacity for COVID patients.
Archer, a Navy veteran who recently graduated from the V-CARE nursing program, spent a week at the Jacob Javits Convention Center field hospital before being transferred to Mount Sinai Hospital where he cared for COVID patients.
Both agreed it was a life-changing month, and if given the chance, they would do it again.
“Seeing thousands of people come from all over the country to help the providers in New York and to help the people of New York recover faster was amazing,” Bernal said.
It was heartening to see people from all different types of practice come together. She said their team of out-of-state nurses all stayed at a handful of local hotels and became a tight-knit group.
“We really developed a family,” she said. “We became one there, to the point where when we were slowly leaving, one by one, we would cry.”
While in New York, Bernal worked as a nurse practitioner assigned to Coler Specialty Hospital, a dormant facility that reopened to accommodate coronavirus patients. The facility had no intensive care unit, so it admitted transferred COVID patients who were either recovering or needed more observation.
While the hospital did not see the critical COVID-19 patients on ventilators, the days and nights were still intense and challenging due to the limited resources.
Additional hospital units would come online to treat more patients each week, but there were few basic supplies and equipment, like medications, oxygen, or even hospital beds. Bernal said when she began rotations on night shifts, the hospital had three units open, and by the time she left, they had nine units running.
“It was almost as if we were in a tent except we had AC and a building, but we didn’t have medications. If we needed medication, we would need to order it, and it would come almost 24 to 48 hours later,” she said. “For the patients who would start declining, we would have to call 911.”
Currently Bernal works in the COVID unit at Mease Countryside Hospital in Safety Harbor, where her experience on the front lines in New York have been invaluable. She is in a progressive care unit where rooms have been converted into negative pressure rooms specifically for COVID patients.
Bernal said it was an easy decision to head to the epicenter of the health crisis.
“I’ve always had the heart to serve,” she said. “Being able to serve and to be put where help is needed is something that I crave. Of course, it doesn’t have to be in my city. Wherever I am needed, I will go. There’s a Bible verse that says, ‘Here I am. Send me,’ and that’s really what I’m going by.”
Archer served as a licensed practical nurse in New York over the same period. He was first assigned to the Javits Convention Center field hospital, but once there were enough staff to manage the patient loads there, he was shifted uptown to Mount Sinai Hospital.
He served five years in the military as a Navy corpsman and was deployed four times, twice to the naval hospital ship U.S.N.S. Mercy and twice to Afghanistan.
Archer said he decided to sign up for the month-long commitment while he was finishing up his bachelor’s degree in nursing, because he knew his skills were needed elsewhere.
He returned to the Tampa Bay area in early May, and says it’s difficult to describe the magnitude of putting in 16-hour days as a nurse on the front lines during a pandemic.
“Honestly, it was one of the hardest experiences,” he said. “It was mind-boggling to think about the amount of people that either thought they had coronavirus or were showing symptoms. It was really hard to grasp the whole concept of it.”
Archer said toward the end of the third week, he noticed the average age of COVID patients was noticeably dropping, from people in their late 40s to younger, healthier 30-year-olds and a couple of 20-year-olds.
“That was one of the toughest things for me, because this can happen to anyone. It doesn’t have to be someone who is older or someone who is immune compromised,” he said.
His previous experience in infection control was during one of his deployments on the U.S.N.S. Mercy ship when a patient tested positive for Ebola and crew members took measures to quarantine the patient and to make sure the virus did not spread.
Archer said caring for COVID patients had that same sense of urgency.
Overall, he says working for a month in New York was a great learning experience and something he will carry with him as he begins a nursing job at Lakeland Regional Hospital in July.
“That was my first time dealing with civilian health care from a military perspective, so seeing the difference of everything and being able to help was probably the biggest thing,” he said.
Story by Elizabeth L. Brown, USF College of Nursing