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Finding ways to cope

Editor’s note: Joelle Wilson of Klamath Falls is among people with medical skills working in New York City area hospitals providing assistance during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This is the second part of a two-part story. You can read part 1 here.

Difficult times, yes. But Joelle Wilson is experiencing a variety of emotions and learning lessons during her two-month stint as a respiratory therapist at a New York hospital treating people infected by COVID-19.

Wilson, 53, who lives in Klamath Falls, has been working long weeks at New York University’s Winthrop Hospital, located about 25 miles from downtown New York City, since April 6. She’s scheduled to end her assignment May 31. Her temporary home is the Viana Hotel and Spa in Westbury, about 6 miles from the hospital, a 591-bed facility in Mineola that’s been reconfigured to handle 1,050 coronavirus patients.

Spending spring in New York wasn’t part of her plan. Last Christmas, her mother, Micki Dwelley, also of Klamath Falls, surprised Wilson and her sons, Chad and Daniel Heiney, and other family members with plans for a vacation trip to Cancun. That, of course, has been indefinitely delayed. And being in New York is anything but a vacation.

“I haven’t seen the city yet,” Wilson laughed during a telephone interview. She hopes to remedy that. With some three-day weekends ahead, she’s rented a car to “just drive.” She’s especially curious to see Manhattan, New York City’s skyscrapers and other sights.

Work is her focus, work that involves helping a seemingly endless stream of coronavirus patients — many who are in extreme pain and too many who die.

Wilson says she, like other respiratory therapists and medical staff, necessarily find ways to channel their emotions.

“What we’re seeing happening to the patients is quite frightening. I’m seeing a lot of things that are unbelievable. It’s a tragedy seeing what people and families are going through.”

That’s why doctors, nurses and other hospital staff, including RTs such as Wilson, have found ways to cope with the emotional ups and downs.

Happy times occur when patients are well enough to be discharged. When that happens, she and other hospital workers line the halls to applaud, cheer and pass along wishes for a full recovery to departing patients.

Every morning, most hospital staff gather to pray.

“It doesn’t matter what religion they are,” Wilson says of the blend of faiths and beliefs. Likewise, when it’s apparent that patients are nearing death, staff often gather around that person’s bed to pray.

“It’s pretty powerful,” Wilson says of experiencing how people of different faiths come together.

There are also cheerful moments. One happened when, while leaving work, teams of fully geared New York firefighters and their engines were waiting outside the hospital. “They were clapping and cheering for us. It was pretty amazing.”

A GoFundMe campaign demonstrated the broad community support for Winthrop Hospital’s medical staff, including those who’ve come from across the nation. The fund raised nearly $100,000, and the money is being used to support Long Island area restaurants that provide meals, a mix of breakfasts, lunches and dinners, for hospital staff and other front-line works. On Tuesday, May 12, International Nurse’s Day, she and others were treated to flowers and free Champagne and beer.

On the rare days Wilson goes shopping, people seem to instantly realize she’s not a local.

“The few stores I’ve gone into people seem to know I’m from out of town.” Whether it’s the lack of a New York accent or something else, she says, the inevitable question is, “‘Are you here for working at the hospital?’ Everyone starts thanking me for being here. It’s weird, the praise. I don’t think I deserve that. ... People are very grateful.”

While the work environment at the hospital is focused and intense, the staff has found ways to add smiles. Because of strict protocol, she and others dress alike, outfitted from head to toe in scrubs, masks, gloves and personal protective equipment. “We all look like blue Smurfs running around,” Wilson laughs. “I joke that I never know the people I work with because all we can see are each other’s eyes. ... We have no idea what our colleagues look like.”

Jokes and laughter are necessary in an environment where so many people suffer — and die.

“Emotionally I’m OK, until it becomes personal,” says Wilson, remembering a COVID-19 death of a hospital employee who transported patients and was a father and coach.

That case was an exception, she explains.

“To be able to work in this field, you have to separate yourself from the job. You can’t take it home. You have to be able to walk away from it or you can’t do your job.”

Something Wilson believes and takes comfort in is the knowledge that, “during that period of time I was with them, I gave them the best care I could. Some of my patients have died, but I’ve been there at their side.”

Among the many unknowns is how effective and responsive the response to COVID-19 has been.

“It will be interesting in the next few years to learn what we did wrong and what we did right.”

She stays in almost daily contact with her sons, other family members and friends.

“I’ve gotten so many letters, care packages, flowers, bakery goods, Wilson laughs. “My friends and family were and are concerned. But they’re excited and supportive of me doing something I love to do.”

That concern works two ways. Wilson also worries about them and others. As she emphasizes of COVID-19, “It’s not going away. You have to be diligent. People need to take their own safety seriously. That doesn’t mean you can’t live your own life. Just keep in mind that everything you touch is potentially infected. We all have to learn how to change our behavior.

“I think that I bathe in hand sanitizer,” she jokes.

When shopping, Wilson practices what she preaches, wiping and sanitizing her shopping cart, not allowing others to touch her grocery items, bagging her purchases, then wiping all items with sanitizer when she unpacks them at her apartment.

She has advice about social distancing. “Being 6 feet apart is not enough. It needs to be 10 feet. If someone coughs, that cough goes 12 feet.”

Working as a respiratory therapist means Wilson is intimately involved with patients. Her duties include conducting and monitoring prescribed therapeutic and diagnostic procedures, maintaining artificial and natural airway, performing pulmonary function testing, doing various kinds of monitoring, documenting patient medical records and other tasks that place her in close contact with patients. It’s work where she experiences an array of emotional ups and downs.

“It’s a tragedy what people and families are going through, but at the same time it’s really been a wonderful experience. It’s really gratifying to help people, but it’s helping me, too. Every day we’re doing stuff that’s so different. It’s a really amazing educational opportunity,” she says.

Wilson doesn’t know what will happen after her contract ends May 31. Return home? Stay in New York? Find another short-term job at another coronavirus hot spot if the feared second wave hits? She’s uncertain, but she has told a medical staff recruiter “to keep me in mind” for another assignment.

Why is she doing it?

“I just felt like it was something I needed to do. I want to help.”

People who want to contact Wilson can write to her at: Joelle Wilson, Viana Hotel and Spa, 3998 Brush Hollow Road, Westbury, New York 11590.

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

Courtesy photoNew York fire crews line up outside Winthrop Hospital to applaud hospital staff.