Jeff Day, a post-op nurse at a Mount Sinai hospital in New York, used to celebrate with patients recovering from gender-affirming surgeries. Now, he informs callers if they’ve tested positive for COVID-19.
Almost overnight this 49-year-old gay nurse and displaced southerner, found himself like many health care workers on the frontlines against a global pandemic. And once again, New York City is ground zero.
Less than two months ago, Day was assigned to a post-surgical care unit where he worked with transgender patients who had just completed gender-confirmation surgery. When those surgeries were categorized as “elective” at the start of the crisis in New York, he was redeployed to another Mount Sinai hospital where he answers phone calls for patients who have been seen by their physician and now are awaiting COVID-19 test results.
“Earlier in this crisis when I would call a patient and let them know they have COVID, I would receive a much stronger reaction,” Day said. “Before I would get: What does this mean? I live with my grandmother! Do I have to move out? It was all very doomsday.”
Now, callers worry about jobs and lost wages. Others quietly accept their fate.
Day said it feels surreal to leave his apartment building in Queens, and see all the old familiar places now quiet and almost dormant during his eerie walk to work.
“I certainly fear bringing COVID back home,” he said, thinking of his partner, Matthew, who also works in health care. “I fear that just leaving to go to the grocery store.”
It has only been a little over a month since the first coronavirus case was confirmed in New York on March 1. Since then, the state has seen more than 195,000 cases and more than 10,000 deaths, including that of Kious Kelly, an assistant nurse manager at a Mount Sinai cardiac observation unit. His death from coronavirus on March 24, prompted protests from healthcare workers demanding more protective gear.
“At this point we assume everyone is positive,” Day said. “I got to that point about a week ago when I saw somewhere in the media that we should behave as if everyone is positive, and that made sense for me.”
Despite the danger, Day continues to report to work and perform the often grim duty he’s been assigned. For him, this is his new routine under New York’s shelter-in-place order implemented on March 20.
As he walks the streets in his mask, with a jacket covering his scrubs against the early morning chill, a few scattered people wear masks of their own and stare suspiciously at one another. He quickly heads into a Dunkin Donuts for coffee.
“One change that I can now recognize, and that I take as a small win, is the reduction of hysteria in the phone calls that I receive. I think that is because of the education that the public has received.”
As he leaves the donut shop, a man sees his scrubs and shouts thanks through a mask for Day’s service as a health care worker. The middle-aged nurse’s heart melts from the love New Yorkers are unafraid to show for their first responders.
“It reminded me of 9/11,” he said, becoming emotional as he remembered a police officer he saw and thanked during that grim time.
But he admits there are some things that are the same that shouldn’t be.
“The blood donation ban is a problem,” Day said, his voice taking a serious tone. “It went from 12 months to a three-month ban. But in my opinion that is still too long — it should be a zero-day ban. It is based too much on perception still. Science does not support a ban of any kind, as evidenced by the lifting in numerous countries.”
Day is also upset by his transfer from working with post-op transgender patients.
“I personally view it as life-saving surgery, like a coronary bypass,” he explained. “Something that someone needs urgently. Ultimately, the decision is a collaboration between the patient’s primary care provider, surgeon and other professionals such as social workers and psychologists. There are a number of experts who chime in in order to prepare the patient for surgery.”
Day added that the patient often waited a year or longer to finally have the surgery only to have it canceled as “elective.”
“That compounds the anxiety for patients who have been waiting so long to get to this point,” he said.
Day notices a lot of changes in a short amount of time. He rides the subway to work and notices the E train during rush hour between Manhattan and Queens is usually standing room only even on a “slow” day. Now, there are only the “essential” and the financially desperate wearing masks as they warily eye one another.
“I don’t feel as safe on the train as before all of this started,” Day admitted. “It’s a very different world now. The number of homeless makes me feel less safe because since there are fewer riders, there is more room for them. The beggars are more aggressive since there aren’t as many people to beg from.”
While he makes the perilous train ride to a virus ground zero, he looks out the window and notices what he feels are far too many people still on the streets.
“People need to stay at home and they are just not staying there,” he said in frustration. “Ideally, I would like to see no one on the streets at all. And that’s coming from someone who just cannot stand to be cooped up. But things aren’t improving. Not even close.”
Still, the ride gives Day time to think about how he ended up in this situation. The memory brings a smile. His thoughts drift to his childhood in the South.
“I worked at McDonalds and I was fired because I was was a stupid high schooler who didn’t take it seriously,” he laughed, recalling his youth in Columbia, S.C. “I needed a way to supplement my income. I saw on a career board a post for a nursing assistant and I saw it paid more money.”
The experience was challenging, but he quickly fell in love with it.
“I found rewards working as a nursing assistant that I didn’t find working at a drive thru,” he explained. “I enjoyed the ‘thank yous,’ the smiles, the appreciation, the admiration and the respect.”
Today, he is a nurse practitioner and an assistant professor of nursing in Byers College at New York University where currently he teaches online classes for 300 nursing students. Though he makes it a point not to bring up COVID-19, if he can avoid it. He doesn’t want to overwhelm them.
“We are inundated with information,” Day said. “And they are looking to us for a nursing foundation. That is what I want to be for them.”
When he reaches his hospital, Day passes numerous tents where possible COVID-19 patients are triaged.
He has to pass them before he can reach the door. Once inside, everyone goes through a screening process.
“Patients with severe symptoms go on to the emergency department,” he said. “Others who may have a fever but it can be managed with Tylenol should stay home.”
But he said those with shortness of breath or an uncontrolled fever should go to the emergency department to have their care managed.
As for the other floors and departments, “They are empty compared to what I have seen in the past,” Day said, “The emergency department is utter chaos and a flurry of activity. But the rest of the hospital is haunting.”
Day once again is overcome with emotion as he thinks about his colleagues who face death daily.
“From stories that I’ve heard, COVID patients are coming to emergency with shortness of breath and are put on machines. They seem to be doing well,” he pauses for a minute to collect himself. “Then they decline and die. I would say this occurs daily.”
When Day returns home to his partner and his second job online, he often forgets to take a break and rest.
“I’m not good at self-care,” he chuckled. “And I don’t think that’s unusual for nurses. We are famously bad for taking care of ourselves while we take such good care of other people.”
However, he does take time to notice the changing world around him.
“What stands out to me,” Day said, remembering South Carolina, “is the gentility. I’m struck with the amount of time people have to share with one another that we really don’t have here in New York City.”
That’s why the change wrought by the virus seems so striking to him now after having spent 15-16 years in the big city.
“What strikes me is how empty Times Square is right now.”
In a moment reminiscent of the empty streets of Italy spontaneously filling with the singing of those in quarantine, someone in his apartment complex played the National Anthem on the saxophone while his building filled with cheers for first responders.
Days later, in a rare moment of time together and with few places left to go, Day and his partner visited
Matthew’s hospital to cheer on his colleagues.
This time, instead of tents filled with the sick and dying, they were greeted by a “heroes alley” consisting of ladder structures erected by neighboring fire departments and adorned with a large American flag.
The structure was placed near the emergency room entrance where workers had endured so much over the past few weeks.
“Whenever a worker walked in or out, the crowd would erupt into cheers and applause,” Day said proudly.
But what he most enjoyed was seeing the costumed fire department mascot, “Sparky,” wearing a face mask and bearing a homemade sign saying, “Sparky loves our health care workers.”
In that moment New York became a little more gentle if not genteel.
Published at Fri, 17 Apr 2020 22:09:40 +0000