On March 17, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo put out a plea for nurses and medical professionals across the United States to head to the Big Apple to work in the city’s hospitals that had become overrun with COVID-19 patients, while facing staffing, medication, and equipment shortages.
Countless answered that call, put their lives on hold, and headed into the unknown at the height of the pandemic. One of those people was Amy Kinder, an emergency room nurse at Ascension St. Vincent Kokomo. Having worked in crisis situations for six years, Kinder thought she was prepared for the worst of it.
However, what she experienced, she said, was like nothing she ever had experienced before, and the nursing she did was nothing like any kind of nursing she had ever done. Through the tough times, Kinder found support, friendship, and solace in eight other nurses she worked with during her 21-day stay at Coney Island Hospital in Brooklyn. Now, the nine of them have released a book, COVID-19 Frontliners, detailing their time in New York.
“We felt like it was important to get the truth out there because you see on the news so many conflicting stories of what’s really happening or what was going on,” said Kinder. “So we just felt like it was important to get our frontline experience out there so other people really could see and understand what it really was like because, when I was out in New York, like the news sugarcoated what was really going on.”
In the book, the nine nurses told their stories, starting with their decisions to go and ending with returning home and having to process everything they had just gone through.
For Kinder, she decided to assist in New York for a couple of reasons. For one, she was being called off of multiple shifts at Ascension due to low censuses in the ER. For another, she couldn’t get the thoughts of what was going on in New York out of her head.
She had seen on the news the overcrowded hospitals, the refrigerated trucks to hold the dead bodies, and she had heard the pleas for help. Since she wasn’t necessarily needed in Kokomo at the time, she made the decision to go where she was needed.
On April 5, she reported for duty at the Marriott Marquis in New York, attended orientations, and soon after, reported to Coney Island Hospital in Brooklyn. Upon reporting to the hospital, her group of nurses attended another brief orientation. During the orientation, the lead nurse’s pager kept going off. After several times, the nurse told the group that each time the pager went off there was another death in the hospital.
“It went off 11 times in two-and-a-half hours. Eleven patients died while were we sitting there,” wrote Kinder in the book.
After orientation, Kinder was sent to the “red zone” in the emergency room – an area of the ER for the most critical patients. And there were plenty of them.
“There were patients everywhere, double and triple stacked in rooms, lining the hallways, right up to the nurses’ station. I could not believe what I was seeing. How could this be possible? Where did all of these patients come from? I thought to myself, ‘Damn, this is way worse than what I saw on the news,’” Kinder said.
The alarming number of patients wasn’t the only issue the nurses were having. Kinder said most of the patients were Russian and didn’t speak English. So instead of having a name and medical history for patients — since interpreters weren’t being brought in — the patients became numbers.
And so did the nurses. The majority of the nurses in the red zone, Kinder said, were agency nurses and not employees of the hospital. The agency nurses, she said, weren't treated as well as the hospital staff was. The agency nurses had trouble getting new personal protective equipment (PPE). Kinder was required to wear the same PPE for five or six days before getting new PPE, and she remembered one of her coworkers getting blood on his bunny suit and being told it wasn’t enough blood to require new PPE. Hospital staff, on the other hand, received new PPE regularly, she said.
While working with limited supplies to protect themselves, the nurses also had limited supplies to treat their patients. Oxygen levels dipped to alarming levels throughout Kinder's stay.
“Oxygen alarms went off continuously; patients were suffocating because ventilators could not be run on full oxygen,” she said. “Every day we came in, there was something different to be added to the list of shortages. At one point, I remember taking medications that had been hanging on one patient and moving them over to the next patient who needed them more. This was happening because of the massive shortages of medications. It killed me to do this. We should not have been in this predicament at all. We should not have had to choose who gets the last of the medication or supplies.”
One of the other nurses had to make her own fentanyl sedation drip because the pharmacy was entirely out of sedation medication due to excessive use. The nurses ran out of standard ventilators and BiPAP machines and had to use portable ventilators that typically were used for short periods of time to transport patients to hospitals.
The phrase “tag them and bag them” was drilled into the nurses’ heads. A sign was posted outside of the morgue and refrigerated trucks instructing personnel how to lay the deceased. The heaviest were to go to the middle shelf, while the lighter were to be placed on the upper shelf. Bodies were to be overlapped with heads placed on the next patient’s chest or abdomen, face up.
“During the hardest time, we learned how to cope in ways we never had before. Not only were we seeing death in our patients but within our own healthcare family. We lost an agency nurse one night at shift change. She was found down in the bathroom. My heart still hurts for this individual’s family,” Kinder said.
Eventually, the surge of patients at Coney island Hospital died down, and Kinder’s 21-day contract came to an end. Kinder was given the option to stay, but she opted to return home. Though she said it was a tough decision to leave — and she felt some guilt for leaving should another surge come after she left — she was proud of herself for making it through her contract.
But back home wasn’t much easier. Kinder still was haunted by her time in New York.
“I’m not sure I will ever fully recover … The night terrors are real. The occurrences and déjà vu are scary. I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, panting for air as if I had just run a marathon. It’s all hard,” she said.
Soon after returning home, Kinder returned to her job at Ascension St. Vincent in the ER. But the PTSD also was real, she said.
“Alarms go off, and I flash back to the horror in NYC. I begin to hyperventilate worrying that we are running out of oxygen again or that a patient is in crisis. I have to talk myself down and remind myself of where I am and that I’m no longer in NYC,” she said.
Each shift is getting harder and harder, and Kinder now is considering moving to a different area in nursing.
Despite the tough recovery, Kinder said if she asked to do it all over again and return to Coney Island Hospital, she wouldn’t hesitate.
Kinder since has tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies. She was unsure of when she might have contracted the virus, but she thought it might have been while she was in New York City, as she was sick during the second week of the 21-day contract.
When it comes to hearing people downplay the virus, compare it to the flu, or not believe it's real at all, Kinder said it’s hard.
“It’s really hard because I was also, before I went to New York, on the fence about all of it. I knew that it was a big deal, but at the same time I wasn’t really sure how big of a deal it was. There’s so much unknown about this dang virus, so I even was on the fence. But then I come home and people are mouthing, and until you’ve been out there and lived it, it hurts to hear people talk like that because I saw these patients just dropping like flies,” she said.
On the other hand, Kinder said she does believe there are multiple strains of the virus, some potentially much deadlier than others.
“The virus I saw in New York was completely different than the virus I see in my patients here. I could just look at my patients in New York and start to draw their blood and be able to look at a doctor and tell them they’re COVID-positive,” she said. “Here, our patients present a lot differently. Symptoms seem to be a lot more mild here than they were out there, and I really don’t know the answer to why.”
COVID-19 Frontliners is available on Amazon, Kindle, and from Kinder. The copies Kinder is selling have color photos and sell for $26. To purchase a copy from Kinder, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.