New York nurses arrive in Utah, to ‘give back’ for the help they got in the early days of COVID-19

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Magdelena Litwinczuk, one of a group of ICU nurses from Northwell Health who will support ICU teams at Intermountain Healthcare in Utah, at a news conference in Murray on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. Last April, Intermountain deployed two COVID-19 Response Teams totaling 100 caregivers to assist New York City-area hospitals during that state’s major surge of COVID-19 cases. Those hospitals planned to return the favor when their surge subsided, which it now has.

Madison Montague, an intensive care nurse in Manhattan, calls COVID-19 “one of the loneliest things I’ve ever experienced” — and said her fellow health care workers, including those who flew in from Utah and across the country, helped get her and other New York nurses through the worst outbreaks.

Montague is one of 10 ICU nurses from New York who arrived this weekend at Murray’s Intermountain Medical Center, lending their services and experience as a thank you to Utah health care workers who went to the Big Apple to help in March and April.

Montague, an ICU nurse at Manhattan’s Lenox Hill Hospital, said she and other New York nurses were strengthened by “the fact that that people were willing to come from all over — from Utah, from Florida, from Ohio, from everywhere — to help us because we needed it.”

Overall, 30 nurses from Northwell Health, a New York hospital chain, will work at Intermountain Medical Center over the next six weeks — in groups of 10, two weeks each — helping both COVID-19 patients and other patients.

Intermountain Healthcare, the Utah hospital chain that operates the Murray center, sent some 100 health care workers to New York this spring, when the nation’s largest city was suffering the highest number of cases of COVID-19.

At a news conference Tuesday, the visiting New Yorkers echoed the sentiment of Adara Abrahamsen, an ICU nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, who said she came to Utah because “I feel I need to give back.”

Abrahamsen added, “you guys came and helped us when things were really picking up.”

Montague agreed. “The way that we got through COVID in New York was with the help with all the care providers that came — from Intermountain, from all the other destinations,” Montague said. “When we were at our lowest point, and we were struggling every single shift, the way that we got through it was by leaning on each other.”

During the worst of the COVID-19 spread in New York, “we were overrun at the hospital. Our ratios were one to four — one nurse to four patients, which was double what we’re used to,” said Shereyah Barbera, an ICU nurse at Southside Hospital in Bay Shore, Long Island. “When the Intermountain group came, it gave us relief, and we were able to bring down our ratios.”

Abrahamsen was thrilled by the reception she and the other New Yorkers have received in Utah.

“You guys have been so kind and warm and welcoming,” Abrahamsen said. “Everybody that I’ve met, truly — on the streets, at the 7-Eleven, in the hospital — you all have been amazing.”

Montague said the loneliness associated with COVID-19 is “hard to describe to people that aren’t there. … The patients are lonely.”

Another nurse from New York, Magdalena Litwinczuk, noted that “being in the hospital as a patient is very difficult, even when you don’t have COVID — but when you are so sick, and you now are alone, no one can visit you. … You are without your loved ones. We [nurses] became the family for the patients. We were the communicators. We were the ones going in with the iPads, trying to connect grandma and grandpa, mom and dad, and everybody else.”

The crisis brought nurses and health care workers together in a spirit of camaraderie, said Annice Sterling, also a nurse at Long Island Jewish.

“There were nurses that worked downstairs in an ICU that I’ve never seen before,” Sterling said. “Because we had so many ICUs that were created during COVID, we got to learn and meet so many different people. So, now, waking down the hallway, we can say, ‘Hey, how are you?’ And even though we are seeing eyes during COVID, because we all have masks on, you realize how close you got to people during that time.”

The experience of fighting COVID has changed how Sterling works as a nurse, she said.

“Even though the COVID patients are in their separate rooms, we still wear masks all around the hospital — our N95s as well as our surgical masks,” Sterling said. “Even going on break, the way we organize has been different — figuring out the best times to go on break so that we’re not colonizing in the break room together.”

New York is over the worst of the outbreaks, Montague said, a sign that “hopefully, social distancing is working. People wore their masks, people washed their hands. They stayed away from each other in the grocery stores. People were smart about it.”

Montague said she sometimes wishes everyone who doubts the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic could be “a fly on the wall” of a New York ICU.

“I try not to take it personally when I see somebody not wearing a mask, or getting upset in a store,” Montague said. “They don’t know that I went to work every day and watched somebody die every day. They don’t know that and they never will. I hope that, by seeing the numbers and seeing the proof, that people will think rationally and do their part.”