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They’d read the reports and seen the numbers. They thought they had a pretty good idea of what they were signing up for.
But when doctors and nurses from Utah walked into New York hospitals last week, they were not prepared.
The noise was like a thousand ceiling fans whirring at once as ventilators pumped air into unconscious patients. The sick took on unnatural shades of purple, green and yellow. And refrigerated trucks and vans waited for those who weren’t going to be able to walk out.
“It’s awful. It’s just awful," said Dixie Harris, an Intermountain physician who volunteered to respond to the coronavirus at an intensive care unit near Long Island.
She paused and took a deep breath audible over the phone: “I didn’t know it was this awful.”
Harris has been working with 99 other medical staffers from Utah who volunteered to lend a hand in one of the worst-hit states in the country. What they’ve seen has shocked them.
They have had some triumphs, too, and they hold onto those now to get through what they never expected.
These are moments that have stuck with them.
A mother and son
The mother had tested positive for COVID-19 when she was 36 weeks pregnant. She came into the emergency center at Southside Hospital unable to breathe. Shortly after, she was unresponsive.
To save the baby, staff wheeled her into the operating room and delivered her son by cesarean section. He was carried away. She was put on a ventilator.
On Harris’ second day in the ICU last week, she walked past the woman’s room. Only 12% of the people put on ventilators, she knew, came off them and survived. And the woman wasn’t there.
Over the intercom, “Here Comes the Sun” started playing. Harris knew what it meant.
She ran to the front doors and saw the woman walking out as nurses and doctors cheered and clapped. “They were all so excited for her,” Harris said, noting the hospital plays the Beatles whenever someone is discharged.
The physician watched as the woman ran outside and grabbed her 12-day-old baby boy whom she hadn’t yet held.
She danced on the sidewalk with him in her arms.
Hours later and just a few miles away at the Long Island Jewish Medical Center, a 59-year-old man was flatlining.
He had come in three days earlier feeling short of breath. Even with maximum oxygen, he declined.
As doctors tried to resuscitate him, Utah nurse Whitney Hilton grabbed the man’s hand and wrapped her fingers tightly around his. “It’s up to you,” she whispered. “We’re here with you. If you want to keep fighting, we’re here with you.”
Because of how quickly the coronavirus spreads, family members are not allowed inside the hospital with their sick loved ones. Hilton said she’s tried to be a stand-in so that no one has to die alone.
And so she was there, holding on, when the man no longer had a pulse.
“I didn’t even know who he was,” she said. “I just remember he had this pair of black Nikes with him. It made me realize he was a person. That human part of so many of these people has been lost. And I wanted to remember something about him.”
Before they moved him to the morgue, she took one of his fingers, dipped it onto an ink pad and then pressed it on a card for his family. The nurses do it for every death. Hilton also printed off a small image of his heartbeat for them; it’s unique to each person. The man’s was fast and tall.
She likes to picture him running or playing basketball in those shoes.
A hard call
Harris’ hands shook as she dialed the phone last Sunday. The man knew what she was calling to say, but it didn’t make it easier.
When he picked up, the doctor remembers softly telling him: “Your wife isn’t going to make it.”
The husband had the virus, too, but had recovered. He’s in his 80s. “I’m getting better,” he told Harris.
A pause. “But I don’t understand. How could she be dying? Why isn’t she OK?”
They’d been married for 50 years, he told the doctor, and he was going to miss her. They’d spent more than half their lives together. They used to make each other cakes on their birthdays.
Harris cried on the phone with him.
Holding their breath
In the ICU, where there are more deaths than discharges, the small things feel like the biggest wins.
Riley Chador, a Salt Lake City nurse, said in a video posted by a co-worker that sometimes that’s as easy as shaving a patient’s beard so he feels more like himself — “though we did a hack job at it,” she confessed with a laugh. Or it might mean telling stories about her own family to a patient who’s too sick to talk but who nods his head for her to continue.
Her favorite came on her third day in New York. The ICU staff had removed the tube from a woman’s mouth. The hope was that she’d be able to breathe on her own. At any other time, that wouldn’t be a big deal. But here, Chador said, it was everything.
The woman had tried before and had to be intubated again because she wasn’t getting enough oxygen. If it didn’t work this time, she was under a DNR order, or do not resuscitate, and could die.
Most of the hospital staff had gathered outside the patient’s doors to watch. The funny thing is, Chador said, they were all holding their breath.
And then the woman inhaled.
“She was smiling. She had the biggest smile on her face,” Chador said. “Everyone outside the room was cheering for her. And she just smiled and smiled and cried happy tears.”
Hilton didn’t know how far along the woman was. She could see her rounded belly, though, and could tell she was pregnant. And she was concerned.
Her skin was not the right color, almost blue mixed with magenta, and she wasn’t breathing well. When patients look like that, the nurses turn them onto their stomachs to open their airways. With a pregnancy, that’s a risk.
If the staff did nothing, though, both the mother and the child could die.
The surgeon called the woman’s family. They would have to decide: Either the surgeon could rush her to the emergency room to deliver and try to save the child or he could turn her over and try to save the woman. They picked the woman.
At 5 p.m., Hilton helped shift her to her stomach. At 6 p.m., the obstetrician came in to check on the baby.
There was no heartbeat.
“She wasn’t awake," Hilton said. "She’s still fighting, and she doesn’t know yet about her little one.”
The doctor who had been watching over the woman for days, Hilton said, left the room and crumpled to the floor outside. She, too, is a mother. And she cried.
Harris called up her mom on FaceTime after a tough day.
Before she left for New York, the physician had helped her mother figure out the technology. She wanted to stay in touch and check up on her.
Her mom, 85, was learning to play the ukulele. She played one of Harris’ favorite songs over the phone: “Amazing Grace.”
Videos for home
On his first day working in New York last Saturday, Nathan Barney took video of himself as he walked into Milstein Hospital in upper Manhattan. “Here we go,” he said with a smile. “Heading in for our first shift.”
Twelve hours later, the West Jordan nurse filmed another one from his hotel room. “Just barely got back,” he noted, scratching his chin. He went silent.
“I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that I was shocked by what I saw.”
Then he started crying.
The video was supposed to just be for his wife, Erin, and their four kids. Barney has never been away from them for more than four days. And now he was in New York to volunteer for two weeks. He wanted them to know he was OK. It turns out, he wasn’t.
Barney decided to post it to his Facebook page, he said, so that others could see what was happening and understand how serious the disease is.
“For those who are back home, it’s as bad as they say it is,” he said. “It kills. And it is not a pleasant way to die.”
Most patients are sedated. Some are bleeding out from clots. All, he notes, are “tenuous.” He’s wiped tears off their faces. And he can see in their eyes that they’re scared.
And this wasn’t even the worst of it. The nurses in New York had already dealt with that part, he said, before the teams from Utah came. They were in week No. 6. He was on day No. 1.
The video went viral.
He’s continued to post more, including short interviews with Chador and other co-workers.
Harris and the other staff had been looking for any store still open in New York on their day off. They needed a break. One nurse was desperate for Diet Coke. They were all hungry for something that wasn’t hotel food.
But there wasn’t anything for blocks. And there were no Uber rides, to prevent spreading the virus.
When they finally stumbled on a little shop, they screamed and quickly spread out down the aisles. Harris found the mother lode: a box filled with all sorts of lotions and face creams.
She bought it and took it into the hospital the next day to pass out to the doctors and nurses there. Everyone’s skin, she said, is so cracked and dried out from the masks and shields they’ve been wearing. Some have creases for hours after they come home.
“This was a blessing.”
Not feeling clean
Next to the sink in his hotel room, Barney laid out all of the items he’d had with him at the hospital. His wallet with a dollar bill clipped on top. His hotel key. A black and red watch. Some cherry-limeade drink mix. A gel pen. A tube of ChapStick.
One by one he wiped the items down with a heavy-duty disinfectant.
He doesn’t return back to his room in the same scrubs he wore in the ICU. And he cleans and recleans anything and everything that could have potentially become contaminated. He knew coming here that he could be exposed, but it’s different experiencing it.
“Even when you leave the room, you feel dirty,” he said. “Psychologically, it weighs on you. There’s concern about, am I going to get sick? Am I going to give it to someone else? So you clean everything, multiple times, all day long.”
Too many patients
Harris stood with the other staff getting ready for the shift change. At 3 p.m., the doctors working in the day give a rundown of the patients they worked on and any updates. Usually, it’s pretty thorough.
Here, during the pandemic, it was quick. Patient A is still sick. Patient B is intubated. Patient C is unresponsive. Patient D needs fluids. Patient E is going to die.
There are 150 people in the ICU where she’s volunteering — enough to go through the alphabet almost six times.
“It was so abbreviated,” Harris said. “It surprised me. But it had to be that way. If they went through everyone like normal, we would have been briefing for four hours.”
A lesson in Latin
Hilton has met a lot of the nurses and doctors in New York who have been battling the coronavirus for more than a month. They’re all resilient and powerful and inspiring, she said.
One has stood out. He’s a respiratory therapist and has worked for 33 days straight. He’d been employed at the hospital, too, since the response to 9/11.
He placed a large piece of tape at the top of the face shield that he wears. In the prettiest cursive, Hilton said, he wrote: “Aut inveniam viam aut faciam.”
It’s Latin for, "I shall either find a way or make one."
Since coming to New York, she’s realized she wasn’t prepared for how harrowing it would be. Now, she knows she also wasn’t prepared for the love and kindness.