Federation of Nurses/UFT members on the front lines of the coronavirus battle are finding strength in each other and in their union at NYU Langone Hospital-Brooklyn and at Staten Island University Hospital South.
“This is a war and our hospitals are the battlefields,” said UFT Vice President Anne Goldman, who is the head of the Federation of Nurses/UFT. “Every day is a challenge, but we intend to defeat this insidious enemy.”
UFT officials regularly confer with hospital executives to discuss concerns and advocate for equipment. And the union is delivering 1,000 individually wrapped meals to nurses on all three shifts at the hospitals on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The UFT Disaster Relief Fund collected $25,822 in donations from 555 members to pay for the initiative.
“The union also stepped up and did something amazing, offering virtual support groups twice a day, seven days a week,” said Rebecca Garrabrant, a nurse at NYU Langone-Brooklyn who has been treating COVID-19 patients on ventilators. “The stress level and the grief is just very, very overwhelming,” she said.
Nancy Barth Miller, the UFT chapter leader at Staten Island University Hospital South, part of the Northwell Health system, said nurses are being called “heroes without capes.”
“It looks like a war zone at times, especially if you’re taking care of a positive patient on a ventilator,” said Miller, a nurse for nearly 40 years “Everybody is garbed from head to toe in gowns, helmets with plastic face shields, goggles, hair nets, gloves and N95 respirators.”
Bevin Sullivan, a float nurse at SIUH South who has been serving as a critical care nurse since the outbreak, said admissions at her hospital are down but the facility’s operations are far from normal because there are so many critical patients. “It’s a totally different kind of nursing,” she said. “It’s battlefield medicine.” And, she said, it’s a “petrifying feeling, worrying about what you’re carrying.”
But the nurses report day after day despite the personal risks. “A lot of them are young, they have families and they’re worried about bringing something home to their children,” said Howard Sandau, a critical care/emergency room nurse at NYU Langone-Brooklyn and a special representative for the UFT.
Miller says the work is both physically and mentally exhausting. “I do think down the line it will take its toll because you do everything you can, you care for these people, and then they die,” she said.
Sullivan said nurses will definitely need assistance when the crisis is over. “Right now we’re in it; we’re focused. But I can tell you people will need it. It’s going to hit us.”
Morale among nurses remains good, Miller says. “They are extremely dedicated. Everybody is reporting to work; the sick calls are very limited. They come in with a smile on their face, help anyone who needs anything and give it their best.”
Garrabrant said, “I never thought I would see the amount of grave illness and the amount of death I saw in a very short amount of time. But one thing I’ve also seen throughout this crisis was such camaraderie and such support for one another.”
Nurses from outside New York City also provided much-needed relief at NYU Langone-Brooklyn. “These are not just young, idealistic nurses,” she said. “These are people who have been nurses for many years, have never seen anything like this, hope never to see it again but felt they wanted to jump in to help the cause.”
Miller wonders if the nurses will be able to keep up their spirits indefinitely.
“I don’t know how long that will last because it’s so, so sad — people are dying alone in their rooms.”
Garrabrant says “one of hardest things to have seen throughout this crisis is that family members can’t be there.”
Phone calls from concerned families were overwhelming the nursing staff, but NYU Langone-Brooklyn now has a dedicated team calling patients’ families and that’s “taking some of the pressure off,” Garrabrant says.
Their mission, however, drives the nurses.
“We take an oath to be there for the public,” Sandau said. “That’s why I became a nurse and that’s why I’m doing what I can.”
Sullivan worries about the calls to loosen restrictions on social distancing. “People are not seeing inside the doors of the hospital,” she said. “They’re not understanding how severe this really is.”