The Parsons Sun is offering access to its coronavirus stories with no payment required. To continue supporting our reporting, please consider a digital subscription.
A couple of weeks ago, traveling registered nurse Tracy Surber sat in her home in Erie watching the news of the spread of the novel coronavirus, seeing how hospitals in New York were being overwhelmed with the growing number of patients and deaths.
“It was killing me to sit at home and see all this stuff and hear about all these nurses that are just working like dogs, and I could be helping and I’m sitting here,” she said. “It’s kind of like a soldier sitting at home during war time. Can’t do it. You’ve got to be out there.”
Grief stricken with the loss of her 19-year-old daughter in a vehicle accident in August, Surber had not been working as often, but after the first of the year she began telling herself to get out of the house and get back to work. She considered a travel job to Tulsa to work in a hospital, but then decided to wait a few more months until her youngest son graduated in May. Then came the closure of the school buildings in Kansas with news of slowly mounting cases of COVID-19 and hot spots growing in other states.
She started looking into nursing travel agencies she had worked with before. She figured her family would think she was crazy for what she was thinking, but it was something she knew she needed to do. At first her family was taken aback but then expressed support for her desire to help.
“I always kind of think if things easily fall into place it was probably meant to be. So I just thought, ‘We’ll see where it goes,’” she said.
Not even a day went by from her sending an email wondering what it would take for her to go to New York to help when she heard back and they updated her information. By that night she had a contract.
“I was shocked,” she said.
They wanted her for 13 weeks, but she said she was only willing to contract for eight since she was so far from home and she wasn’t sure what she was getting herself into.
She would be making enough to cover the cost of housing. She found an apartment and she found out Hertz was giving New York nurses free rental cars, so she was able to get in on that.
“That’s when I felt like, ‘This is meant to be,’” she said.
She arrived in New York April 3. Her husband went with her for a couple of days to help her settle into her apartment and help her through familiarizing herself with her surroundings.
The following Monday, she had orientation to begin at Brooklyn Methodist Hospital.
Through nearly a quarter century of nursing, she has never tended to patients through a state or national emergency. She has done a little bit of everything, except emergency room or operating room. She has worked ICU, but said she prefers working on a regular floor, working with patients who are not in as critical a condition.
“I’m not an adrenaline junkie,” she said. She added that she sticks primarily to med-surg telemetry, taking care of people who are on a regular floor but are not critical. Given that, Surber didn’t know what she would be up against in New York.
Like some others in Southeast Kansas and elsewhere, she was a little skeptical on if things were as bad as she was hearing they were.
“We do live in our own little world back there. We really do. I’m a small town girl by heart. I lived in St. Paul till my 30s and I never really left there. … I think in Southeast Kansas we kind of single ourselves out, like ‘That won’t affect us.’ … I didn’t know what I was going to walk into.”
There are a lot of traveling nurse in New York from as far away as Tennessee, Florida, Washington.
“I see them in passing every day. It’s definitely not something where someone would know what to expect when you get there. As a nurse you are like, ‘I’ve never done this before.’ Well, the whole country’s never done this before. … This is all new. We are still learning things.”
She said her experience began as a baptism by fire.
“I get here and it is what they are saying,” she said. “I don’t watch the news anymore because I see it enough at work. I was watching it religiously at home. Every day I turned it on and I had it on all day long. It’s kind of like 911, you want to hear, but then after a while you just have to turn it off. I haven’t turned it on since I’ve been here, because I see enough of it. It’s real hard to relay that to people who really don’t know what you’re talking about. Unless you are in a hospital, in the medical field and you see it first-hand it’s hard to imagine.
“It’s just like anything else when you are doing something — everybody else can have an opinion, but there is an actual reality. The the reality is you just deal with what’s in front of you. Trying to process it is really crazy.”
Every day she goes to work she is in the float pool, which means when she reports to the nursing office each day they assign her to a unit where they need her most. In eight days, she has only worked the same floor twice.
“Every unit I’ve went to, they all tell the same story. All say two weeks ago it was utter chaos. Code after code, after code, after code. They couldn’t even get to the next patient without calling another one. These nurses are telling me this and they are almost in tears telling me. We are no different anywhere else. We are all caregivers in a hospital and know what that’s like to have one code. That’s detrimental enough. To have so many in a day, they had to quit calling them overhead, because the code team would get too anxious in trying to hurry and get to the next one. They couldn’t keep up.”
A nurse took her to the windows and showed her the trailers they kept in the back of the hospital that were refrigerated for all those people who were dying. The trailers held 50 apiece.
“It made my heart sink, because I can’t even imagine what that would be like. And you know they had to become a little bit numb to it, because I don’t know how anyone can deal with that, because you’re feeling so overwhelmed and helpless,” Surber said. “There’s nothing you can do. You are doing everything you can, but these people are still just dying right and left.
“We all know the days where you are getting slammed with admissions, and you are trying to get people discharged to get in the next one, and it is just bam, bam, bam, bam. And you can’t even think. You can’t even finish a thought in your head without getting interrupted, and I mean all day long for 12 hours,” she said. “I try to imagine that times 10. I can’t even imagine it. That’s what I keep thinking every time I hear those nurses talk.”
It doesn’t matter what kind of patients they were — their age, their race, if they were in good health or not. Everyone Surber has spoken to that has been on the front lines for weeks says the same thing — the virus is weird. It is random. It affects one person one way and another person a different way. Someone with a health issue may walk away after contracting it, and someone who was perfectly healthy gets sicker or may die.
Surber said the number of codes began dropping when she arrived. She is not sure the reason.
“I’m being told it’s because they are not bringing as many patients into the hospital that might not be able to recover. And, I don’t know what that means, if they are not bringing them there, or… ,” she said.
There were COVID-19 patients who coded Friday, but it was slowing down, and she was thankful considering half of the 10 U.S. counties with the highest number of coronavirus infections remain in New York.
Every day she drives to and from work Surber sees the Statue of Liberty in the distance, still standing as a symbol of America to those “yearning to breathe free.” But New York is not the same place people knew a couple of months ago, and hundreds are dying as COVID-19 steals their last breaths.
Surber said she’s wanted to visit the city since she was a child. But the current circumstances give her little scope of the city as it normally is.
“Everything is pretty well shut down,” she said, and people are somber.
Surber has been talking openly on social media about what she is seeing, trying to educate people in Southeast Kansas who may or may not see the impacts of COVID-19 in their rural communities in the future. Some thank her, some bad mouth her as people tend to do on social media. While some responses were startling at first, she said she has been encouraged to ignore them and continue on.
Already, Surber has been asking herself if she would help elsewhere once she finishes her eight weeks.
As her husband, Troy, travels for work, too, she liked the flexibility of her work before, allowing her to be home when Troy is home and spend time with him.
“I would do it again,” she said, though she did not want to commit herself to such long stretches. She is not sure if the agencies or hospitals allow intermittent workers in a pandemic.
“It does wear on a person, and I’m tired. I’m going to need some down time. It is traumatic,” she said, speaking to both the physical and mental impacts. In addition, every day she has background thoughts of wondering if the protective gear she puts on is still working, and, if not, if she will she get a mild case or become deathly ill while she is in New York by herself.
“At the end of the day I am tired and mentally drained. I don’t even want to talk to anybody. … I just want quiet. I don’t want to think. There’s days like that where you have so much going on, your brain just needs to shut off.”
After a few days off, Surber headed back Monday to Brooklyn Methodist to begin her third week. Monday was her birthday.
She pondered being so far from home, unable to celebrate with family. She thought of the virus having no boundaries. She considered the fact she could be a carrier of COVID-19 because she has been around it, but maybe she just has no symptoms. Then, she thought, what if she unknowingly gave it to someone in her family?
“You want to reverse everyone’s thought process about you yourself may not be in danger, but by wearing that mask you might protect somebody else,” she said. “If we didn’t do anything different, it could be a mass outbreak.
“It could go through our community. The thing that goes through my mind is we’re going to know somebody. What if it is my dad? What if it’s my mom? What if it’s my new little grandson? We’re going to know somebody and we’re going to lose somebody to it, and that would be the worst thing that we could do. Nobody wants to lose someone in their family, or anybody for that matter. You can call it what you want, but the virus seems to have no rhyme or reason. We don’t know what could happen.”
She talked about a woman she was taking care of one day who was dying of the virus. She likely was not going to make it through that night after Surber went home.
“Nobody was there. It broke my heart,” she said. “I thought, ‘What if that was me? This is it. This is my last days, and my whole life has been family and they are not there. These are my last days? This sucks.’”
There are bright spots that help her move through: Patients recovering and leaving the hospital.
One other thing, she said, is she had wondered for several days what all the commotion was outside the hospital each day, but she was usually busy nearing the end of her 12-hour shift. Then she figured out it was happening at 7 o’clock every evening.
“You hear horns honking and all this stuff going on. I was like, ‘What is this?’ I finally looked out the window (Friday) and there were fire trucks lined up and there were people outside on their porches, hollering and waving at the health care workers going into their job. Every day. And, I will be walking around during my lunch hour in my scrubs, and people will say out of the blue, ‘Thank you for your help. Thank you for your service.’ It’s just so different than what anybody could experience,” Surber said. “As nurses sometimes we do feel unappreciated, just because we do what we do. And to have that happen, it’s just like, wow. It’s so nice. Not that I want to get appreciated but for people to realize how important our jobs are.”