As the coronavirus spread across the United States this winter and spring, older adults were told to stay home and stay safe. They are among the most vulnerable to the impact of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Most did so, including residents of PHS communities.
Most, except for Nancy Tang, an independent living resident at Carondelet Village in St. Paul, MN, who stepped up, packed up and headed out to serve on the frontline of New York City’s COVID crisis.
Ready now, anytime, anywhere
A registered nurse and US Navy reservist, Nancy, age 61, had mapped out her life plan to retire in December 2020. She moved to Carondelet Village in July 2019 as part of her plan. Nancy has been a nurse for 40 years and served in the Navy and reserves for 20 years. She has been deployed to Kuwait, Germany and Afghanistan, among other places. To retain her status in the Navy Reserves and fulfill its motto, “Ready now, anytime, anywhere,” Nancy attends monthly drill weekends locally to go through training and do administrative work. “That’s why they call us weekend warriors,” she said. “We train this way so that when there’s a clear and urgent need, the Navy can call up the reservists.”
In late March and early April, such a call went out. The coronavirus was racing through New York City’s population and hospitals desperately needed medical professionals. City and state leaders turned to the military’s medical personnel for support. “When the Navy has a need to fill, it calls for volunteers to mobilize and deploy quickly,” Nancy explained. “I heard the stories about New York in the news and saw that the need was so great. I thought, I’m going to retire and finish my nursing career soon but first, this is something I can do— it is the right thing to do,” she said. Nancy received an email from the Navy on Thursday, April 2 followed by a phone call on Friday. By that Sunday morning, she was on a plane to New York and Monday morning, April 5, she put on her scrubs and reported for duty.
Anything but ordinary nursing
Nancy was assigned to Bellevue Hospital. Located on Manhattan’s East Side, Bellevue is the oldest hospital in America tracing its roots back to 1736. As a public hospital, Bellevue includes people who are homeless and low income among its patients. Nancy worked 2 days on/2 days off in telemetry, typically a “step-down” from ICU. The unit soon became a COVID floor to meet the influx of COVID patients. She quickly learned that this was anything but ordinary nursing and it required a whole new set of practices. “I’ve seen many things, but what struck me this time was wearing full PPE all day, every day,” she said.
Soon after she arrived, Nancy learned about the difficult and traumatic weeks prior. The hospital had lost 50% of its nurses who had been ill or refused to report for work in fear for their own lives and families. She worked alongside a nursing assistant who had just returned to the hospital after recovering from COVID herself from exposure on her shift. The nurse manager on the floor, who had also provided direct care to patients, was also infected. He passed away a week after Nancy arrived. Although she didn’t know the manager, she felt the grief and distress his team was enduring. She watched as the hospital team gathered in a brief memorial service to him and wrote in a memorial book to share words of gratitude for his life. The reality of the situation hit her hard. “After I heard their stories, I understood their pain and fear,” she said.
First time on the front line
Nancy admits that she felt more vulnerable in this deployment than she had when serving overseas. “In war zones, there is always risk, but the medical staff is not on the front lines,” she said. “But in COVID, we ARE the frontline warriors. For the first time in my nursing career, I was concerned for my life too. I was asking myself, will I get out okay? Will I get to go home?”
Nancy didn’t underestimate the real risks she faced. Having been deployed before, her will and other personal business were in order. But once on the COVID front line, she realized this time was different and the stakes were higher. “I had to be prepared for if I got sick or even if I died,” she said candidly. “Everything was in my safe deposit box but my family could not get to it, so I had to make sure my daughter had access. I’ve never had to think about that before.”
Working 12-hour shifts, Nancy provided direct care to patients for no less than 10 hours a shift. “Some were so scared, especially the patients on ventilators. You could see it in their eyes,” she said. Because Bellevue is a public hospital, most of the patients were among an underserved population and many were recent immigrants. As one who speaks English as a second language herself, Nancy felt deep empathy for patients who knew little or no English. Although translators were available, she knew it was still difficult for them, tethered to equipment and apart from family, to comprehend the trauma they were going through.
Her work among the nursing staff increased her respect for nurses, especially those who were balancing work and home. “Some of the younger nurses with children were working 12 hour shifts for days at a time. Then they would go home to family responsibilities and worry if they were exposing their children,” she said. “I didn’t have to deal with that myself but I felt for what they were facing and wondered how on earth they did it.”
Strength to carry great burdens
Although relieved to not have such responsibilities, Nancy knew she needed to take care of herself to best take care of her patients. “On my days off, I walked along the Hudson River just to take in the city,” she said. She also spent time with her fellow reservists, traveling to and from the hospital and sharing meals at the hotel where they stayed. When the burdens became too much, Navy mental health counselors were just a phone call away for them all.
The burdens were sometimes great and the memory of them lingers with her. The most difficult she said was when she finished her shift, then returned the next day to learn that a patient she had cared for had passed away. “Their families couldn’t be with them, only the medical staff,” she said, so it felt like there was never a proper goodbye.
As a professional, Nancy knows how to manage emotions so that she can do her work. “But every day there was too much human suffering,” she recalls, “I would see in on a patient’s face, and sometimes, I just had to cry,” she said, tearing up as the memories return to her.
She gratefully remembers the ministry of the hospital chaplains who carried pagers to be notified and attend a patient’s passing, offering prayer and presence. Knowing they were there, offering deeply personal spiritual caring and prayer gave her hope.
Although far from home, Nancy never felt alone. Not only did she have the the company of her Navy team, she also felt surrounded by the support of her family and her Carondelet Village neighbors who prayed for her. “Knowing that someone was praying for me every day was so important. It kept me going,” she said.
Rest, recovery, reflection
When Nancy completed her assignment and left Bellevue at the end of May, the situation in New York had a much better outlook. Fewer patients were being admitted and more were recovering. She knew the pandemic was far from over but it was time for her to head home.
On her way back to Minnesota, she and her fellow reservists stopped over at a Virginia naval base to quarantine for 14 days and to begin their own physical, mental and spiritual recovery. “For two weeks, I took long walks, sat in a chair, read a good book and looked out the window. It was so serene,” she said. “The military understands what we need,” she said, “I’m so glad for the support, counseling and time they gave us.”
Following a negative COVID-19 test, Nancy returned home to her Carondelet Village apartment and again quarantined for two more weeks. “I’m really an introvert,” she admits, adding that spending time alone in her room with nowhere to go, “I totally enjoyed it!” She said that she was surprised by how much she enjoyed her own cooking. “It felt like years since I’d made myself a meal,” she said.
Although they couldn’t see her in person right away, her friends and neighbors at Carondelet Village gave her a hearty welcome home by making phone calls, sending emails and leaving gifts outside her apartment door. “I’ve lived here only a year and already I have so many good friends,” she said.
“I’m going to retire in a few months so I’m hoping to relax and slow down,” Nancy said. When COVID “calms down” and restrictions are lifted, she’s hoping to travel, first in Minnesota and then across the country, especially to California to see her daughter. “All my life, I’ve been so busy, I have to learn how to slow down,” she laughs.
Nancy is still processing and reconciling her New York experience as memories return. In hindsight, she realizes that when she answered this call to serve, she had no idea what was ahead or how hard it would be. Even so, she has no regrets. “I’m proud to be a nurse, proud to work alongside other nurses and it was my privilege to serve in New York. I thank God for this because, even though I’m in my 60s, my life is still purposeful and I can work and contribute,” she said. “This is my prayer every day; I admit I want to slow down and just enjoy life but then I ask God, ‘Where do you want to meet me and what do you want me to do with the rest of my life? Show me.’” Nancy has every reason to believe that God will answer her prayer.
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