The Pandemic Through the Eyes of an ER Nurse

Hundreds of beeping noises fill the damp air of the emergency room of NYU Winthrop Hospital. The staggered breathing of the hopeful finds its place into the gaps in the never-ending silence of the rooms. Family members try to find their way into their loved one’s arms and are told no one may enter the place where only some will be cured. This is the new normal for emergency rooms in New York.

NYU Winthrop Hospital in Mineola was the first hospital on Long Island to treat a patient with COVID-19 on Mar. 5. The hospital was inundated after being called a “hot spot” for the virus by Governor Andrew Cuomo. NYU Winthrop was reportedly one of the more “prepared” hospitals on Long Island after conducting multiple demonstrations of coronavirus patients and graduating most of its medical students early from NYU Langone School of Medicine to be prepared for an influx of patients. On a normal day, the ER at NYU Winthrop holds 511 beds. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, it has added hundreds of new beds to help patients who are fighting for their lives.

For registered nurse Joanne Drenckhehan, who works in the emergency room at NYU Winthrop, this is the new normal. This is her new line of work. Instead of delivering babies, aiding in surgeries, and helping the sick find comfort, she has become a soldier in the war against COVID-19. She is a masked fighter against a threat unknown to the human eye, only visible through the suffering of the patients she once swore to protect. Not only doctors, but nurses and other healthcare officials have rushed to help alarming number of COVID-19 patients. “Within days, hours even, the ER I always knew and worked in for years changed overnight. The new normal consists of a hospital full of solely patients tested positive for COVID-19. No more broken arms, no more urgent stitches, a whole new ER dynamic thrusted upon us. At Winthrop, the whole structure of the ER is changed,” said Drenckhehan. “We’ve broken down walls to make room for more beds. Half the ER has become ICU, intensive care unit, and there is triple the staff as opposed to normal. It’s always all hands-on deck!” added Drenckhehan.

Healthcare workers were thrown into the battlefield without much mental preparedness for the fight that would ensue. “Obviously, every day is nerve-racking to the core,” shared Drenckhehan about the new dynamic of the ER and feelings shared amongst her coworkers. “Imagine having to see all your classmates fully geared up, masks and gowns. Even though we work in a hospital, it’s so weird and almost startling to see each other like that. The air around everyone is just filled with nerves, but we try for our mental health to maintain a level of normalcy. If not, we risk inflicting our fears on our patients, and that is the last thing they need.”

Most healthcare facilities were blatantly not ready for the new insurgency of patients coming in for treatment. When asked if NYU Winthrop was truly prepared for the global pandemic’s headway to New York, Drenckhehan commented, “I honestly think that NYU prepared the best it could for the small amount of time it had to arrange its game plan. The volume of new cases went up so quickly, it was crazy. But, as nurses, we make-shifted our own things to help us do our job the best we can. In days, the ER was turned into an ICU, hallways were turned into rooms for patients, and beds were everywhere they possibly had the room to put them. NYU transitioned overnight, and we have backup plans ready to go.”

In today’s world, many believe the media has produced more false information than ever before. And, in the wake of fake news, many fear the media is misrepresenting this pandemic. Drenckhehan explained that the media is portraying the virus scientifically accurately: “I believe, in my medical background, that the media is portraying this pandemic pretty accurately in terms for the general public to understand. Of course, the government and media does not want to scare the public, but they want to warn them of the dangers that this virus can cause. But, in truth, no one knows the truth about this pandemic unless they fully immerse themselves into it like the medical professionals.”

The hidden truth behind all the healthcare workers doing their part in the fight against COVID-19 is the fear of coming home to their loved ones at the end of the day. Drenckhehan is a wife and a mother of two. She shared her fears: “I am absolutely frightened to kiss my kids goodnight. I don’t want to be the mother that brings this virus, the grim reaper creeping into many people’s thoughts, home to my family.” Many doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals carry this burden home to their families at night. Their whole career has not only become a beacon of hope to the public eye, but also a fear for the ones they live close to. “I do my best to take my scrubs off at work, get home and go straight into the shower, and wash my scrubs almost daily. I know people who are not going home to their families and staying in hotels. My only fear is that I will run out of protective equipment, which I am sure is a fear of most,” said Drenckhehan about the precautions she takes to protect her family.

In one way or another, this tough time has taught everyone about taking everyday life for granted. In a world where children are no longer able to walk into a school building, a time of reflection is bestowed upon all walks of life. “This pandemic has totally changed my perspective. I feel firsthand everyday how fragile life is. I miss my mother dearly and I miss seeing her almost every day. I will not be able to see her anytime soon because of my job,” commented Drenckhehan. She continued, “We take so much for granted. We will never get back this time, but we will look back and appreciate this in the future. I just want my children to have a normal life again.”

This global pandemic has taught the world a lesson about public healthcare and precaution. But it has also taught the world a lesson about the importance of healthcare workers. Doctors, nurses, EMTs, pharmacists, medical technicians, and more who have dedicated their whole lives to the health of others are now put into the spotlight. This is their Super Bowl, their World Series. When the whole world gets thrown into uncertainty, they are the ones with whom we put our faith; when our hands are tied, they become the ones whom we look to for help in these unprecedented times. Now, more than ever, we must appreciate those who risk their lives every day to save the countless. These are our new soldiers, soldiers who put their scrubs on one leg at a time, who leave their family home to go face the enemy, who from their masks now have marks upon their faces, which represent their battle wounds. The rest of us must look onto the horizon, bracing for the storm yet ahead, guarded by the angels of today’s frightening, uncertain world and find our way into the new normal.