'This Is Not Nursing': NC Nurse On The Chaos And Emotion Of Working In An NYC Emergency Department

Apr 21, 2020

North Carolina-based nurse Bevin Strickland traveled to New York City to help in the coronavirus efforts.
Credit Courtesy Bevin Strickland

Bevin Strickland is an ICU nurse, a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and a single mother of three. Two weeks ago, she started a temporary position at Mount Sinai hospital, in New York City, one of the nation’s coronavirus hot spots.

 


WUNC reporter Liz Schlemmer has been talking to Strickland since she began that job. They explore what intensive care means for the patient, the nurse and anyone who has seen a family member go through it.

The following is a condensed version of their conversation:

Strickland describing her first day in the emergency department at Mount Sinai in Queens:

I was being kind of naive, I guess. You know, you just think that it's not going to be as bad, I'm more that type of person. [If] I was thinking it was as bad as it looked, I may not have come ... but I would have anyway. 

But getting into the ED the first day I was, I have to say I was floored by what I saw in New York, first off. Just the streets are pretty much barren. There's no one walking around. I took some great pictures of leaving at 7 a.m. and going to Grand Central Station, and it was empty. 

Strickland describing her first full day at the hospital on April 6th. She spoke with reporter Liz Schlemmer after her shift, while she sat on an empty subway platform: 

I'm sitting out in the cool air. I'm loving it. Wearing all that PPE, everybody knows the term PPE now which is funny. ...We keep two layers of masks, goggles and a face shield. And so your nose is itching, you feel yourself sweating under the goggles, face masks. So when you walk outside I see every nurse, every health care worker, we're just going, ah!

On deciding to help out in New York City:

I finally went to a friend who I knew who worked at the ED at Mount Sinai. So it's just a fluke, he happened to work there. I don't know anybody else. We grew up in the same neighborhood. So I said, "Hey, Eric, I really want to come help. Do they need help at your hospital? Like, I'll just I'll come help anywhere." And he said, "Yeah, we definitely need help. Let me put you through to my manager." He put me through the manager, [I said] “Listen, I don't you don't need to pay me anything. I'm going to volunteer. Just if you could just put me up somewhere, you know, that would be great, because I'm a broke student, you know?” And he said, “Let me get back to you.” 

Despite her urgency to volunteer, Strickland did not fully comprehend that New York City was as bad as it was. Strickland on her exchange with her friend Eric:

When I saw him today, we just kept hugging and everything because we're like, we both have cooties. We can hug you know? I was like, "Okay, now, Eric, why didn't you tell me this was the epicenter?" He goes, "I didn't want to scare you off." I was like, "So you knew, didn't you? You knew I didn't know." And he goes, "Yeah, I knew you didn't know." 

Strickland says she's glad to be in Queens because she could have ended up at a hospital that didn’t need her as badly. But the conditions are rough:

I've never had my back hurt before. I've never been so thirsty in my life because you're sweating in here. But I think I only get caught up in that for a couple seconds. And you know, you look at the patients. You're like, they’d give anything to trade with me. 

These patients are really sick and most of them are elderly. They are the older ones, that's definitely what I'm seeing. So not only are they in this, watching this hectic environment and they're all on these little stretchers with just a curtain. I mean, they're right up on each other. [Nobody] has any space. So they're crammed like cattle in there. 

You're lucky if you even get vitals on a patient more than once on a shift. If they're stable with that one set of vitals, you probably won't check them again. But again, you've got 15 patients, and you know that if you don't have your eyes on them periodically, they're not on a monitor, so nothing's gonna alarm.

And they're already curled up in a ball because they have trouble breathing, you know, and they're exhausted and they're febrile. They're not going to call out probably. And they're in this very impersonal care. This is not nursing. 

Strickland on the guilt of not being able to offer better care:

A couple patients said when I apologize, a lot, like, "You know, I'm sorry, we're not coming over a lot, you know, are you okay? And you know, hope you understand, you know, do you need anything?" and a couple would say, "It's okay. I've been watching y'all, you know, it's okay. [Y'all] have so much to do.” So that makes it feel a little better. 

It's sad to me that if I’m that last person they see before they go to an ICU, you, you know … they can’t even see me smile. They can see my eyes, I guess, but you know, so I'm just trying so hard to... I'm going to get COVID for sure. 

Strickland reflecting on the shock of her first day:

It was hard. It was sad. I'm gonna admit it. I hadn't thought about like “Do I want to do this for two months? You know, is it gonna break me down? Is it gonna drain me?” Like, I think I'm a pretty tough person.

But I definitely did have a moment of going, you should really think and be sure that you want to be in this for two months. Because [you] can't do it and not be 100% committed. So I would be doing a disservice to them. If I had doubts, or if I was scared or felt like it was gonna be detrimental to my health or my mental health.

So I think I had that moment I decided towards the end of the shift, you know, yeah, I'm gonna, I'm going to do this. [It's] going to take things from me but it's also going to give me a lot. 

Strickland on speaking to her friend Eric about how the Empire State Building has come to symbolize a bigger goal:

My apartment has a view of the Empire State Building, which is really cool. And I said, "Oh, it's really pretty red. What is that for?" And they're like, code red. It's like New York in an emergency, you know? And I was like, "Oh, God." 

And he's like, thank you so much for coming to help. And then he said, “How was your day?” I was like, “It was a little overwhelming, and I was probably feel a little bit stressed from it.” And he said, well, and this is what got me emotional with him. He said, “Well, maybe you can help turn, help us turn that Empire State Building blue.”