On the last day of April, Central Georgia Technical College (CGTC) nursing instructor Krystal Gilbert spent her day off away the front lines of Queens Hospital considering a slice of New York-style pizza as she proctored final exams while her colleague, Ashley Rivers, boarded an afternoon flight home to a quarantine hotel.
For both of them, life as a nursing instructor during the spring semester had been anything but routine. It had actually been a whirlwind of emotions, quick decisions, and personal strength.
In March, just as CGTC began making decisions to move in-person instruction online, Gilbert and Rivers saw and heard the reports about the growing number of COVID-19 cases in New York City and researched how they could help.
“We eventually connected with a company we liked and deployed to NYC within 48 hours of being accepted,” Gilbert said. “I felt very calm about it and knew this is where I was supposed to be.”
Where they were scheduled to be was in one of New York City’s hardest-hit boroughs, Queens, and when they got there everything about the pace and the assignment felt like a warzone.
“From what I understand, it almost felt like preparing for a battle,” said Rivers, who comes from a military family. “Orientation was like a quick escort down to the ER. There was no time for a tour, just welcome to the ER. It was a whirlwind. You see what’s happening and you want to help and be there, and get to doing things to help people, but I actually sat there for a moment not doing much. I found myself in the epicenter, knowing all that was going on and the questions that surround it. It was kind of scary.”
The nurses coming to work in their cohort were asked to be in scrubs at all times, on-call, and reporting for specific assignments every day at 5:45am– even if they were scheduled to be off. Gilbert was assigned a day shift alongside 18 other nurses from across the country. Her unit of the hospital provided care for both hot and cold patients. Hot patients are those confirmed with COVID-19, while cold patients typically dealt with strokes, heart complications, and conditions still very much in need of attention.
“The first week was a shock,” Gilbert said, admitting that this was her first travel assignment ever. “There was no way to separate patients, but now they have seen a decline in admissions and there has been a drastic change in the last few weeks. It is a completely different place.”
Gilbert began her second three-week stay in New York City in May. She came to that decision after consultation with her family and husband, who is at home with their two-year-old daughter.
“At first, when I told my mom, she cried. But she understood that this is the person I am,” Gilbert said. “I don’t think my call is done yet and that’s why I am still staying.”
The day before the start of her second round was Gilbert’s off day. After a visit to the laundromat, she headed back to her hotel to do what any nursing instructor does with their free time– grade assignments.
Even amidst the backdrop of a global pandemic the likes unseen, Gilbert and Rivers’ duty to lead the next generation of nurses never wavered. Classes still had to be taught, exams still needed to be proctored, assignments needed to be graded, and in a weird way, students needed their comfort.
“Students have certainly been questioning their career choices,” Gilbert said. Reassurance was given that their “response to all of this does not reflect poorly on their ability to be a nurse.”
By way of their instructors sharing almost in real-time what this type of nursing was like, students had access to course material that in many ways supersedes the textbook.
“Students were great,” Rivers said, acknowledging that their attitude made the situation more manageable. “Other nurses would ask why I didn’t get much sleep and were shocked to learn it was because I was grading a project.”
Rivers worked the night shift. Her bedtime was noon if she was able to finish her instructor duties on time.
A day of work for her went like this: Wake up at 5pm, eat, get dressed, and head to the bus to get to the hospital. Arrive at the hospital around 6:45pm and work until 7am. When her shift ended, she rode the bus back to the hotel. Arriving at 8am she would go through a process of decontamination.
The next steps were to find food and the time to eat it, teach, call her husband and three kids and get ready to do it all over again.
But that routine, as tough as it was, pales in comparison to what happened inside the halls of the hospital.
It does not take much effort to understand the gravity of what areas like New York City have been experiencing in terms of public health. The facts are everywhere. COVID-19 cases were high– as were death tolls. The reality was sobering.
What is clear from the perspective of two nurses, even ones whose homes are some 900 miles away, is that saving a life is the priority.
“Life-saving should never be at a premium,” Rivers said. “When students ask me why do they need to know what a doctor needs to do, it’s because you can’t properly assess, care, and advocate for your patient if you don’t. You can’t be comfortable in the knowledge that you have. You have to be okay with becoming more uncomfortable in the knowledge that can save a life.”
Gilbert and Rivers made it clear that as educators and active nurses, their experiences should be valued as treatment and policies move forward for any state regarding COVID-19. They recognize that much of public health moving forward is unprecedented and unknown but that leaning into the new knowledge is paramount.
Rivers returned home the first week of May and tested negative for the virus.
When she landed at the airport in Atlanta, she was shocked to see that she was the only one wearing a mask. Prior to returning to her home, Rivers quarantined in a Macon hotel provided for healthcare professionals free of charge by the American Nurses Association (ANA) through Hilton Hotels.
Now more than ever, as the sponsor of CGTC’s Student Nurses Association, Rivers is adamant about student nurses being involved with industry associations who advocate for nurses and lend amplification to their collective voice, especially as they speak to care in a pandemic.
Gilbert remains in New York City for three more weeks.
“It’s been hard, but it has been worth it right now. I don’t know if I would leave my family and do this all again, especially in another state,” she said, agreeing that she shouldn’t have to go through this crisis again, especially if guidelines and health professionals are taken for their word.
Being taken for their word and experiences are all they ask for as they hope the college, their students, and their families contribute.