KOKOMO, Ind. – After six years as an emergency room nurse, Amy Lennon thought she was prepared to work in a New York City hospital, providing care for patients suffering in the Covid-19 pandemic.
She was wrong.
“It’s been a whirlwind of emotions. It’s not easy,” said Lennon, an Indiana University Kokomo nursing graduate. “I come home from every shift and cry. In my first six days working out here, I saw more death than I’ve seen in my previous six years. It doesn’t matter what you do, the patients are literally dropping like flies. I know I’m here for a reason.”
Lennon, who earned her Bachelor of Science in Nursing in 2014, and Master of Science in Nursing in 2016, began hearing about hospitals and health care providers pushed to the breaking point because of the virus, and felt compelled to do her part.
“I knew New York was getting hit the hardest, so I prayed on it,” she said. “The nurses who worked there are so burned out, from working 24 hours with no break. I knew there was some way I should be able to help. I felt this calling that I needed to be out there.”
A friend put her in touch with an agency contracting nurses to work 21-day deployments in New York hospitals, and within 48 hours of accepting a contract, she was in the city, assigned to the Coney Island Hospital.
The schedule is brutal, as she will work 12 to 16-hour shifts, without a day off, for 21 days. Each day begins with a bus ride from a hotel in Times Square, where medical workers are being housed, to the hospital, which is currently only treating Covid-19 patients. She works in the ER that’s more like an intensive care unit, because there are no beds to transition patients from the ER.
She recalled her first shift, walking into the ER, with twice as many patients as its capacity crammed in, waiting for care.
“I could feel my stomach in my chest. I had no idea if I was going to be sick, or if I was going to cry,” Lennon said.
She takes on the heavy workload in full personal protective equipment (PPE)— a Tyvek protective suit zipped over her scrubs, an N95 mask, eye protection, hair covering, and two sets of gloves, with one pair worn for the whole shift, and a second pair over them that are changed between patients.
“It’s hot, but I do feel like I’m safe,” she said. “The hospital has stepped forward, and they’re really taking care of us in that manner.”
The work is overwhelming and heartbreaking, battling a virus unlike anything she’s seen before.
According to numbers released by the state Tuesday (April 14), more than 10,000 people have died statewide, with about 7,900 of those deaths in New York City. There have been 202,208 confirmed cases in New York, the state hardest hit by the pandemic.
“In my time here, I have seen patients walk through the front doors, and then they die before the end of my shift,” Lennon said. “Covid-19 literally attacks your entire body. People think it’s just like the flu, but the flu doesn’t affect the coagulation of your blood, and your kidneys, and your liver. The disease progression is so fast, it ends up affecting every body system. It’s great when you can discharge a patient to go home, but more often than not, that hasn’t happened.”
Of the 30 nurses working with her, only three are on staff at that hospital, she said, with the rest being agency contracted nurses like her. She’s glad to be able to support her fellow nurses.
“Their nurses are either sick, or they burned out from all the extra hours they had to work,” Lennon said. “It’s not only the patients who need us, but the staff. We’re all in health care, and have a shared goal of taking care of the patients and making sure they are loved while they are here.”
The patients are what keep her going knowing she’s doing her best for them in the short time she has available. Many of them speak English as a second language, and, because the virus is so easy to spread, visitors aren’t allowed.
“These patients break my heart,” Lennon said. “Not only are they in the ER and very sick, they don’t have their families, and they are being cared for by people in full PPE. It has to be a scary experience for them. You just have to be there for them.”
After her 21 days, she can return to Kokomo, where she will self-quarantine for 14 days before she can return to work or visit with family and friends. She hasn’t ruled out signing on for a second deployment, but that’s not decided.
The experience showed her how blessed she is both at home and at work, she said.
“I’ve told my family and my fiancée that I don’t think I’m going to be the same person after all of this,” she said. “The way things are out here during this time, makes me so grateful for what I have at home. It’s put into perspective how rough things can be.”
Lennon appreciates the support she’s received from family, friend, and co-workers back in Indiana – especially at Ascension St. Vincent Kokomo, which granted her a leave of absence, so she can return to her job when she comes home.
“Just those encouraging words from people at home make it that much more possible for me to do this work,” she said. “All I’ve received is love and support, and it means so much.”
Indiana University Kokomo celebrates 75 years as north central Indiana’s choice for higher education.