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At the epicenter of the pandemic

Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series. You can read part 2 here.

When Joelle Wilson realized the COVID-19 pandemic was creating an unparalleled health crisis, she wanted to help.

A 2016 graduate of Oregon Tech with a bachelor’s degree in respiratory therapy, she wanted to put her experience and knowledge to work. So, on April 3, Wilson was flying east to start work as a respiratory therapist, or RT, at New York University’s Winthrop Hospital on Long Island, about 25 miles from downtown New York City.

The evening of April 6, after being fitted for an N95 mask, given a name badge and following a 45-minute orientation, she began her first 12-1/2-hour shift.

It’s been intense. It wasn’t until 12 days later that she had her first day off.

“It all happened so fast. It was just pack and go,” Wilson says during a recent telephone interview. “I’m seeing a lot of things that are unbelievable. ... I’ve seen nurses break down and cry. We’ll see patients get better, then take a turn for the worse.”

She doesn’t know the mortality rate, but she says large numbers of patients don’t survive.

NYU Winthrop Hospital is at the epicenter of the pandemic. The hospital’s first coronavirus patient was admitted March 6. As of late last week, more than 1,000 patients had been treated and released. In New York’s Nassau County, where the hospital is located, as of late last week there had been 37,152 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1,818 deaths.

“This puts it (coronavirus) in a different spin. I’m afraid we’re going to be dealing with this for a while,” she says, noting the disease is far more intense in New York and on the East Coast than elsewhere, especially places like Southern Oregon. “You guys aren’t seeing it like we’re seeing it here.”

Her work environment is stressful. The 591-bed hospital has been reconfigured to handle 1,050 intensive care unit (ICU) patients, all people with varying degrees of COVID-19, including many on medical ventilators. Areas that were used for board meetings and yoga classes have been converted to ICU rooms. The hospital library is now a staff support area. There are emergency department tents and outside changing stations so staffers like Wilson can change from their clothes into hospital gowns and other personal protective equipment (PPE) when they arrive, then reverse the procedure after their work shifts.

“It’s busy, busy, busy,” she says.

Critical items have been in short supply. Surgical teams are provided with personal protective equipment, but RTs sometimes are not. Because of shortages, Wilson wore one mask N95 eight consecutive days, “which I didn’t like.” She describes some of the hospital gowns as “super thin” and of “no value.”

Working conditions aren’t always ideal, but she and others make do with whatever is available, always aware of the potential risks from close personal contact with patients. And, with one exception in her six-plus weeks at Winthrop, “Every patient I’ve seen is a COVID patient.”

Wilson says the impact of COVID-19 is far more intense in New York than elsewhere. “What I read about how it impacts people on the West Coast is so totally different.”

That’s led her and others to speculate on reasons why the disease’s spread is worse on the East Coast. They believe factors include more concentrated living conditions because generations of families live in the same home and because groupings of people live in sardine-like close quarters. A third common factor may be that people of some religious faiths choose to ignore social distancing guidelines.

“I’ve had many family units,” she says, noting fathers and sons, brothers, mothers and daughters.

While the coronavirus especially impacts older people with such previous medical conditions as heart disease or respiratory problems, Wilson says infected patients have included infants, preteens, seemingly healthy physically fit young men and women, and even a woman and her newborn baby. “It seems to affect everybody differently,” she says.

Among the difficult aspects of her work is knowing that family members are usually unable to have contact with a son, grandparent, mother, father, daughter or relative who might be close to death. “For the most part there’s no contact with family members,” Wilson says, although in recent days video chats have allowed failing victims to at least hear the voices of family members.

Wilson is frustrated because she believes many news media reports downplay aspects of the disease and its impact. While there are frequent stories about medical ventilators and shortages, she says some statistics indicate that 88% of the patients placed on those machines don’t survive.

And while she strives to avoid being political and is an advocate for personal freedom, she’s concerned that people aren’t fully aware of the potential for the virus’s spread and, likewise, believes not enough emphasis is placed on the physical and psychological benefits of simply taking a walk and being outside.

Being outside is a rare luxury for Wilson, and something she’d like to do more often. Instead, on a typical day Wilson awakes early and has a quick breakfast then boards her hotel shuttle at 5:40 to begin her 6 a.m. shift. She works until 7 p.m., changes out of her work scrubs at the outside tent, catches a shuttle back to her hotel, then leaves her work clothes to be laundered before going to her room.

“I’m so tired all I do in sleep and maybe go and get a few groceries.”

Last week during a day off she and two other contract staff — Winthrop’s regular hospital staff is being supplemented by about 100 RTs and other medical personnel from all across the country — drove out to eastern Long Island “just to breathe fresh air and hear the ocean.”

Family and friends worry about her.

Is she afraid of contracting COVID-19?

“No,” Wilson insists. “I do go in there (to the hospital) concerned about being exposed to the virus, because we’re first-hand with the biggest concentration of people in the country with the virus and take all the possible precautions. We do what we need to do.”

Tomorrow — Joelle Wilson talks about life before, during and, possibly after her current assignment at a New York hospital that’s at the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

Joelle Wilson
Courtesy photoAn outdoor tent is used to change into and out of hospital scrubs.