UA alum nursing on COVID floor in NYC: ‘I’ve never seen anything like this’

UA alum serving on front lines in New York
UA alum serving on front lines in New York(Christy Perkins)
Updated: Apr. 23, 2020 at 6:49 PM CDT
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NEW YORK, NY (WBRC) - Conditions in a NYC hospital

Before New York City became a hotspot for the COVID-19 virus, pediatric nurse Christy Perkins typically spent her shifts caring for children of all ages in the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) of a private hospital.

UA alum serving on front lines in New York
UA alum serving on front lines in New York(Christy Perkins)

But a few weeks ago, the hospital converted her unit and most other floors into an adult ICU for extremely contagious COVID-19 patients, nearly all of them on ventilators.

“I’ve never seen anything like this. Every floor in the hospital was almost all COVID-19 patients. Everybody was there for COVID-19. Almost every ICU patient was on a ventilator,” she said.

Instead of getting to know the families of the sick kids she would normally be caring for or trying to get babies to smile, now Perkins is on the front lines of the fight against the coronavirus, treating some of the sickest adults in America’s hardest-hit city.

Perkins graduated from nursing school at the University of Alabama, worked in the PICU for a couple of years at Children’s of Alabama in Birmingham, and moved to New York City as a travel nurse about five years ago. She’s been there ever since.

She said waiting on the influx of COVID-19 patients to reach her hospital felt like "anticipating a train wreck,” knowing she and her co-workers were about to experience something traumatic for them, their patients and the patients’ families.

“When you see on the news that they’re putting up a temporary morgue, and the last time it was used was 9/11, that really causes some stress,” she said.

UA alum serving on front lines in New York
UA alum serving on front lines in New York(Christy Perkins)

Perkins said the adult COVID-19 patients on her floor range in age from 30s to 90s, with most patients over 60. Many of them have comorbidities, or other conditions in addition to COVID-19, but she said many of those underlying conditions were not affecting the patients’ daily lives very much before they contracted the virus.

Once COVID-19 patients started filling up the floors of her hospital, Perkins quickly realized this was much more serious than even the worst flu season she’s ever seen.

“A bad flu season doesn’t look like every hospital in the city needing a refrigerator truck outside for an additional morgue,” she said.

UA alum serving on front lines in New York
UA alum serving on front lines in New York(Christy Perkins)

Perkins also said hospital workers have been surprised by how some patients are reacting to the virus. Since COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, medical workers were expecting to see lung issues, but Perkins said they’ve seen a lot of patients with blood clots and some with kidney injuries.

“It’s not what people expected,” she said.

Her hospital is working with others hospitals in New York City and in the Northeast to share information and learn as much as possible about this new and deadly virus.

Safety conditions for hospital workers

Hospital workers on a COVID-19 floor have to balance caring for their extremely sick patients, who can’t have visitors, with limiting their own exposure to the patients.

Because the hospitals have been so busy, many of the patient’s families are only getting one update a day on the condition of their loved one on the COVID-19 floor.

“You’re trying to preserve PPE by not going into the room often, but that person is on a ventilator and can’t be in touch with their family without my help,” she said.

During one of her shifts, Perkins helped a man listen to the voicemails his wife had left him that day, including one of his three kids telling him goodnight.

Perkins said at her hospital, they are using N95 masks until they wear out. She’s had the same face shield for over a month, and they are starting to run low on isolation gowns.

UA alum serving on front lines in New York
UA alum serving on front lines in New York(Christy Perkins)

The constantly changing standards of personal protection were an added stressor for hospital workers.

“It was always changing, both what the CDC and WHO were saying and what the hospital was saying. Sometimes it changed within a shift, even multiple times. It’s hard to keep up with that,” she said.

Perkins said most of her co-workers resigned themselves to thinking they’ll probably contract the virus eventually, no matter how careful they are.

At one point, Perkins thought she had the virus after being exposed to someone who was positing and experiencing some COVID-19 symptoms. Thankfully, her test came back negative and she only missed one day of work while waiting on the results.

Isolated, together

Prior to the virus impacting the United States, Perkins only had one day off a week between taking classes for her master’s of pediatric critical care in Philadelphia, doing clinicals in New Jersey and still working two 12-hour shifts a week in the city.

Now, she’s only going in to work two or three times a week, doing her classes online, and spending most of her time in her small apartment in Harlem. She doesn’t leave her apartment much except to go on walks or pick up food from a grocery store or restaurant. One of the highlights of her days at home is seeing a friend’s dog through her first-floor window.

“I have a friend and neighbor with a golden retriever puppy and he’s trained now to come up to my window. He’s like a visiting therapy puppy,” she said.

UA alum serving on front lines in New York
UA alum serving on front lines in New York(Christy Perkins)

Perkins said she’s been extremely grateful that she’s able to get out of the house to go to work. She has other friends in the city who are spending eight hours a day working from home while trying to help kids with their schoolwork, all in a tiny, two-bedroom apartment.

“I’m thankful for work, because as a single person living alone, at least I have in-person interaction. I have other single friends who live alone in their apartment all day long,” she said.

Despite having more time at home these days, Perkins said it’s been a struggle to be productive.

“Just because I’m sitting in my apartment doesn’t mean that there’s not emotional trauma that’s not happening now, anxiety and stress that’s not happening,” she said. “I’m just going to take it one day a time.”

Light at the end of the tunnel?

Perkins said she’s not sure what conditions are like at public hospitals across the city, but at her hospital they are starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

“Right now, things are kind of slowing down as far as hospital admissions, ICU admissions. Seems like things are calming down a little bit, so that’s been encouraging,” she said.

“I know that we have to open things up again and I’m for it because I miss people but…we’re feeling that anxiety now, if we open things up again, will there be a second wave? How bad is it going to be? We’ll see, I don’t know.”

For now, she’ll continue commuting to work on empty subways, watch springtime bloom from her apartment windows, and wait for the worst to pass.

New York City remains under a “stay at home” order until at least May 15.

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