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‘This place is like a war zone’

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Local woman joins healthcare workers on the front lines of the coronavirus response

By Gerard Flanagan

Angel Anderson, who has only been a nurse for a year and a half, was told she would be walking into something reminiscent of a war zone when she arrived in New York City on April 5 to treat patients afflicted with the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

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Hospitals overran with patients.

Nurses pushed to the brink, physically, mentally and emotionally.

Ventilators, in short supply, are split between two patients as a last resort.

Personal protective equipment, crucial to protect healthcare workers, is scarce.

Refrigerated trucks sit outside hospitals to handle the massive influx of dead bodies. 

Those accounts are “pretty accurate,” said Anderson, who is at Coney Island Hospital treating coronavirus patients.

“We wait hours for proper protective equipment,” Anderson said. “I spend most of my shift searching for supplies, medicines. Anything I need is not easy to find around here. Things are chaotic. Every day is 10 times worse than my worst day at my job back home. People have compared this to going to war, and that’s exactly what it is.”

In the state of New York alone, John Hopkins University reports nearly 200,000 coronavirus cases, more than any other country in the world, excluding the United States. More than 100,000 of those cases are in New York City alone.

The death toll is just as staggering, with more than 7,000 dead just in New York City.

“When they told me this would be like going to war, they weren’t lying,” she said. “We are working with what we have, which isn’t much.”

Anderson, a wound care nurse at Campbellsville Nursing and Rehab, said her decision to join the front lines of a global pandemic came suddenly and abruptly.

“I had 48 hours to get on a plane and get here,” she said.

Before her plane took off, bound for New York City, Anderson wasn’t feeling very nervous, but as soon as the plane took off, the reality of the situation hit Anderson.

“I texted my mom and said, ‘Momma, I’m scared,’” Anderson said. “I was full of anxiety and nervousness about the unknown I was about to walk into.”

Anderson saw the fight against the coronavirus as a chance to run into the fray, not away from it.

“I felt this would be a once in a lifetime learning experience for me,” Anderson said. “I’ve always been the type to run from the fire, but as I continue in my nursing career, I see myself changing. I felt this was my chance to run to the fire and be a leader. I also felt as a young, healthy nurse with no children or spouse that I should go versus other nurses.” 

Getting out of her comfort zone is not something Anderson would normally do. When she first told her family, friends and coworkers she was heading to New York City, they all thought there was no way she would really do it. But, she acknowledges this is something she had to do.

“I am very comfortable at my job and I don’t normally like to get out of my comfort zone as a nurse,” Anderson said. “But, I felt stepping out of that comfort is what I needed to make me a better nurse and person. I’m still in shock that I am here actually.” 

Anderson lives in a hotel room by herself close to Times Square. Often, New York City, especially Times Square, is bustling with activity, but now, the streets are quiet, the shops are empty and an eerie silence is almost deafening.

Each day, Anderson and her fellow nurses are transported by bus to the hospital to begin their shifts. The trip takes approximately 30 to 45 minutes in eerie silence, a stark departure from the typical hustle and bustle that defines life in New York City.

“I’ve never been to New York City before,” Anderson said, “but it’s crazy to see the streets are bare. No one but other healthcare workers are out on the streets. Our bus rides are much shorter than expected because there are little to no cars on the street. It’s got an odd feeling. Things just feel weird.”

Anderson’s day begins at 5:45 a.m., when she leaves her hotel room. It ends at 9 p.m. - more than 15 hours later. She will do that every single day for her three weeks.

Personal protective equipment, so vital to protecting nurses from contracting the coronavirus, runs in short supply, if it’s in supply at all. Other supplies nurses and doctors need to care for patients also run low. Nurse to patient ratios are “unbelievable,” Anderson said.

“We are all doing our best with what we have,” she said. “It’s been hard on me, as a nurse, because I care a lot for any patient I have and I always want to give the best care I can. But here, it’s the bare minimum. Essential care is given and there is no time or resources for anything extra. It’s rewarding but has also been very defeating.”

“I’ve handled myself okay but this place is like a war zone,” she added.

Many who contract coronavirus deteriorate into critical condition, according to Anderson.

“People are in critical condition, and the situations are far from ideal,” she said. “I’ve come across very few people who do not require some sort of assistance with breathing and oxygenation.”

Patients being separated from family adds to the toll, Anderson said.

“Not only are they suffering physically but they are allowed no family, which makes their conditions even worse,” she said.

What Anderson has seen, so far, has proven to her the seriousness of the coronavirus.

“This virus is different in the way it’s spread, much easier than the flu or any other,” she said. “It can live on surfaces for hours, so the best way to stop the spread is to stay away from people.”

Anderson would love to continue her work on the front lines once her three weeks are done.

“I would love to stay and help, but it’s very mentally, physically and emotionally exhausting,” she said. “I’m not sure I’d last three more weeks.”

Of course, once she returns home, she will have to self-quarantine for two weeks. 

Anderson has kept in close contact with her family during her time on the front lines in New York City, and that has kept her going. But, caring for patients has been the driving force during her time on the front lines.

“The thought of these patients not getting adequate care has kept me here more than anything,” she said. “I want more than anything to make a difference and that’s what I plan to do before I leave.”

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