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What it’s like working as a nurse in NYC during the coronavirus pandemic

Sabrina Poon on being a nurse during coronavirus pandemic

Sabrina Poon. Image credit: Instagram.

Sabrina Poon said Friday, March 13 was the day things got real. The registered nurse who works at one of New York City’s top hospitals said: “That was a definitive day reality really started setting in. Multiple emotional meltdowns followed shortly after. I didn’t know what was going to happen at the hospital and what was going to happen to the city,” she said.

Though the New York native had experience in the ICU, it had been years. But as of early March, it was all hands on deck when it came to the beast that is coronavirus.

“No matter where you were you were expected to treat COVID patients,” she said.

Every hospital is handling the influx of patients during this pandemic differently but Poon and her colleagues were immediately put through crash courses and being prepped as quickly as possible to get them back on the floors and treating patients – though the knowledge on how to treat this deathly virus was still very unclear at that time.

“They were re-familiarising us with skills that would be most relevant to the management of COVID patients, as far as we knew at the time,” Poon said.

“Many of the ICU patients go into a difficult-to-manage condition called ARDS (Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome) and when you’re away from the intensive care setting for a long time, it takes time to get back into critical thinking mode.

“But we just had to jump into that so quickly. We did half a day in a course to cover things you take years practicing. A lot of these people didn’t have the background I had which is super scary when you think about it. But we looked out for each other. We had no choice. Who else was going to do it?”

She describes it as a sudden monsoon wave. One day they were taking a course and the next the hospital was filled with COVID patients.

“By late March we were filled with all COVID patients and then we were taking more patients to try to relieve other hospitals’ overwhelmed patient loads.”


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The PPE detective

Since February, Poon had begun realising the particular importance of personal protective equipment (PPE) with this virus and worrying about the country’s lack of supply. PPE is always essential but this virus was extra contagious.

“I did my own detective work and tried to use any connections I could because there were so many things unanswered: not knowing why there was such a shortage of PPE and not knowing what the treatments were,” she said.

“And in the beginning, we didn’t know how bad it would affect healthcare workers. We were reading about the high death rates in Italy.”

Scary is the only way to describe the work environment as it was just a guessing game, in the beginning, to see how many of her colleagues would contract it.

“In the beginning, some people were more careless about their PPE and just walking into rooms and fixing a ventilator with just a mask on and not wearing the gown and the shield but now we know you have to protect yourself first,” Poon said.

“Some people were less concerned than others, but many of us were deep in research on how much PPE truly was necessary. We weren’t going to just rely on guidelines that were constantly changing, to risk them failing us, with the cost possibly being our lives.”

She said the PPE issue is much more under control now and she does feel secure in that if you practice proper hygiene and protocol it will be OK, for the most part (the more you take off and put on the mask, the more you risk getting contaminated, she noted.)

However, wearing masks, shields, and goggles for hours a day comes with its own set of strains. Poon said she has been having facial pain (after all, she has a mask suctioned to her face the majority of the day) as well as skin issues. She also wears a full hazmat suit which she added not everyone does but “I’m not taking any risks.”

But none of that compares to seeing what patients are going through.

“The hardest part is seeing people go through this and knowing that you can’t do anything else. Outside of this whole pandemic, it’s hard enough to see people sick and see them going through sometimes the hardest part of their lives, and now their families can’t even be there with them.

“We’ll hold the phone up to let the family FaceTime, and sometimes they are watching them die and sometimes they are just trying to say hello not knowing if their loved one can hear it because they are in a coma.

“There is nothing we can do about it but try our best. It’s awful. Even if you aren’t sick with COVID and you are in the hospital for surgery or other treatment, you can’t have someone with you.”


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The team

Even those of us not working on the front lines feel eternally bonded to our coworkers for sharing this weird experience. Imagine what it’s like for Poon and her coworkers who are risking their lives when they go to the ‘office’.

“Anyone will tell you that everyone has really worked hard as a team and everyone has put all efforts in. We all had the understanding that we’re all at risk and there is no room to deal with the insignificant. There is no room for negativity. So, everyone is supporting each other. We’re all in the same boat. No one has experience with this and no one enjoys it,” she said.

In the now

Poon was careful to say that though things have calmed down a bit at the hospital and she is back to seeing non-COVID patients this month, she stresses that we are not out of the woods when it comes to this pandemic.

However, unlike in March and April, Poon is now trying to practice self-care through exercise, rest, and, of course, wine.

“I didn’t do a lot of it in the first month because of researching and updating social media, and I was so consumed in that. But in the last two weeks, it’s been better. So I’ve done Zoom workouts, skincare, lots of wine but sleep is the number one most important thing. If you don’t have that, that’s when your body can’t fight off infection,” she said.

Poon is also an influencer, and used her platform to update people on what was really happening in the hospitals with PPE and to educate them.

“I felt this topic was not getting enough attention. I was doing the research from the beginning because it was affecting my work and then sharing to educate. I felt it was super important,” she said.

And yes, if you are wondering if all those healthcare workers in New York City are listening to your applause, they are (but sometimes they are working when it is happening.)

“It’s pretty cool to know everyone is supporting you,” she said. “In the beginning, the smallest amount of positivity felt so big.”

Though I would be taking a victory lap while wearing my scrubs at 7 PM every night, Poon said she is OK with waving from her window on her days off. She can hear the applause just fine as she looks down at her city.


This article was written by Meredith Lepore and originally published on The Ladders.

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