Contributing in a Crisis
Wednesday, May 6, 2020
Posted by: Shanna Howard
By Kanaka Sathasivan, MPH
“When I went into that first room with a patient, and they were coughing, my anxiety went through the roof. But I pulled myself together and just did what I had to do. As a nurse, it was instinct.”
For the past three weeks, Érica Blair, BSN, RN, has been in New York assisting with the COVID-19 response. At her hospital in Kingwood, Texas, patient cases were low, so with the support of her manager, Blair and her coworker Liz Arrwood, BSN, RN, both took a leave of absence to travel to New York.
The New Normal
A University of Texas graduate, Blair was a certified nurse assistant for seven years before she became a nurse. “I’ve always known nursing was for me. I enjoy what I do. It’s something different every day when I go to work. It can be hard for sure, but you do the best job you can.”
Every day in New York, Blair walks several blocks, takes a bus to the closest stop by the hospital, and then walks several more blocks to get to work. Anyone entering the hospital must have their temperature taken, and police are stationed outside the facility to help with non-compliant patients. When she enters, she immediately dons an N95 mask. Nurses wear the same mask all day but change their other personal protective equipment (PPE) with every patient, including surgical masks, shoe slippers, hair nets and gowns, usually doubled up.
Blair first heard on the news about the need for nurses in Seattle. When she went to the staffing website for NuWest, she saw the need in New York and decided to go there to help. “I came with a group of travelers from all over to work in hospitals around New York City, from Coney Island to Manhattan to the Bronx. I’m glad I am able to work,” she says. “I’m grateful I have the skill set to help out and offer some relief to the nurses here.”
Compared to her work in Texas, Blair now spends much more time donning and doffing PPE, as well as managing more high-acuity patients. “We are constantly monitoring O2 and respiratory symptoms. Some patients are here for three weeks. Others get downgraded from the [intensive care unit] but have a lower chance of recovery.”
At the end of her 12-hour night shift, she goes straight to her hotel room, puts her scrubs in a plastic bag in the bathroom, and then leaves them until laundry day. Even laundry is a new experience as she now uses a laundromat. “It’s been quite an adventure, and if it wasn’t for the support of my fellow nurses, I’d have been a nervous wreck.” For Blair, having other nurses to lean on is the most crucial part of practicing nursing in a crisis.
The Strength of the Team
“Teamwork makes a big difference,” Blair says. “The other day I had a patient come in with a tracheostomy and foley and lines and drains. We had to suction every four hours, and she was septic. My charge nurse was with me half of the time to help take care of her. And we have a nurse who does all the charting by the monitor. As soon as there is a drop in vitals, someone is in the room to help, whether it’s your patient or not.”
Before she went to New York, Blair worked hard to prepare herself. “I knew it was a crisis, and it was going to be shocking. I was prepared for the worst,” she says. “But when I came here the staff was so supportive.”
On their first day, the incoming nurses spent half the shift orienting themselves. “It was definitely crazy — one nurse came in and immediately started crying and didn’t want to go into the rooms. I really felt for her.” Blair knows that the support of her fellow nurses helped her make it through those initial days. “If it wasn’t for them, I’d have been a nervous wreck.”
She also emphasizes that nurses need to be able to rely on each other. “I am always asking the other nurses for help when I need it. That makes a huge difference.”
The Support Nurses Need
While hospitals are packed and busy, the normally bustling city of New York is under stay-at-home orders for non-essential personnel. “I’ve never been to New York,” Blair says, “But it’s nice to be able to walk the streets. I hear normally you can’t because there are so many people.”
Along with Arrwood, Blair has dedicated time to relaxing and enjoying the sights. “It’s important to give yourself a break. We have three days off, so we go to the parks or to see the cool buildings, even just from the outside.” She also prioritizes self-care and supporting her own mental health, whether that means practicing yoga or just unwinding in her hotel room.
“The nurses in New York and the city itself have been overwhelmingly supportive,” Blair says. “When I’m walking in my scrubs, people thank me on the street. Everyone has been really sweet.” While NuWest provided a housing stipend, Blair was also able to take advantage of the hotel deals through American Nurses Association. “From free food to free or discounted hotels for travelers: The support has been amazing.”
While she is still half a country away, she knows her Texas employer and coworkers are rooting for her. “Everyone from my unit has been checking on us every day.” Blair’s facility also strived to make sure staff would not be laid off by letting nurses cross-train and move to other facilities with higher need. The chief executive officer even took a pay cut so more could go to the direct care workers.
In addition to their jobs, both Blair and Arrwood left families behind to go to New York. Blair FaceTimes daily with her children back in Texas, frequently sending video and photos of new experiences, such as riding the subway or seeing the Empire State and Chrysler buildings. “We look forward to talking every day. Being away from my family has been tough, but they’re super supportive, and we’re all fine with me not bringing COVID home.”
Ultimately, Blair knows that her time in New York — and the skills and dedication she brings to the job — matters. “I’m here for 11 more weeks, and I really feel like I’m making a difference.”