Every evening at 7, Jessica Chase’s neighborhood erupts into cheers for all the hospital professionals caring for patients with the deadly virus COVID-19.
Yet if she’s wearing her scrubs while riding her apartment’s elevator, everyone else gets off.
At home, she isolates her own “hot” clothes, anything she’s worn during one of her 12-hour night shifts at the main campus of NYU Langone Medical Center.
On her precious days off, she calls loved ones. And runs alone late at night, when fewer people are out.
This is the life of a nurse in New York City, which has had by far the largest outbreak in the country, with nearly 185,000 confirmed cases and more than 15,000 deaths as of early May.
The thing about Chase is that she doesn’t work at Langone. She’s a Kaiser Permanente San Francisco nurse who came to help.
Despite never volunteering in a disaster, Chase is a perfect COVID-19 nurse. She is per diem and works in a cardiovascular intensive care unit: She had the flexibility to go and she knows ICU.
“Luckily, we were not experiencing a surge and were well staffed,” she said of her Kaiser Permanente department. “It broke my heart seeing and hearing how overwhelmed New York hospitals were. I was more needed there, so I packed my bags and headed out.”
Chase started at Langone on April 13. More than 100 nurses were in her orientation session. But nothing could prepare them.
“My first shift was startling, to see so many patients so sick,” Chase said. “Some were on ventilators, medication drips, or on dialysis for acute renal failure; prone with their chests down and backs up. All of them were on blood thinners for clotting issues.”
So Much Is Hard
For patients, isolation is frightening and disorienting. For nurses, it’s those things — and exhausting.
“All in all, our patients are complex and critically ill,” Chase said. “We need to limit how many people go in the rooms, so each nurse manages everything alone: bathing, turning, vents, respiratory treatments, tracheostomies.”
“At first, most of our patients were sedated and paralyzed so we weren’t able to communicate with them, only update their families once a day,” she continued. “Now while patients are improving and waking up, it’s hard because they want to see their families. Explaining why they can’t and reorienting them to their situation can be hard emotionally.”
Chase uses the word “hard” a lot.
It’s been hard seeing patients fight to live, day in and day out, and to see patients die alone, without family at their side. It’s been hard to re-use N95 masks, worrying about getting sick.
Giving Our Best
During her month at Langone, Chase said the nurse-patient ratio has improved to 1:2.
There are more victories, like her patient who nearly died but turned the corner. “I got to call her husband and have her talk to him for the first time in nearly a month. That was the greatest feeling.”
Chase’s contract ends Saturday. She’s going home to her fiancé, Wells; their dog, Mona; and her Kaiser Permanente San Francisco team who checked on her regularly. But she won’t be leaving this experience behind — ever.
“I have seen the strength, resilience, and tenacity of these health care professionals and patients, and it is so inspiring,” she said. “I have seen nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and doctors with no prior ICU experience handle some of the most critically ill patients.”
“There is a sense of unity and resilience felt here,” Chase added. “For a lot of people, this has been the most challenging part of our career, but together we have given our best.”