On the Front Lines
Local Health Care Workers Offer Help During New York City Pandemic.
By Lisa Gregory and photos by Turner Photography Studio
The elderly man was sitting in the chaotic ER at a New York City hospital begging for his life.
As EMT Andrea Byrd and a colleague walked past him, he grabbed her colleague’s arm and said, “I need help. I don’t want to die.” The two immediately got the attention of a nurse and then left to attend to their assigned duties. But when Byrd and her colleague returned 40 minutes later, the elderly man was dead. “He had a sheet over him,” says Byrd. Adding, “It messes with you.”
But it didn’t stop her.
During the worst of the pandemic in New York City, with hundreds of people dying each day, three local women, a doctor, a nurse and an EMT stepped up, and offered their skills, services and compassion. Andrea Byrd is an EMT who works for Butler Medical Transport and lives in Clear Springs, Maryland. Dr. Roberta Rothen is an orthopedic surgeon for the Parkway Division of the Centers for Advanced Orthopedics in Hagerstown. And Kelly Johnson is a registered nurse for Meritus Medical Center. These women went and did what they could to help those in need in New York City and admit they have been forever touched by what they saw and experienced.
“I am glad I went,” says Byrd. “But it was terrifying.”
“The Grief Was Everywhere”
Dr. Roberta Rothen had never seen anything like it.
Rothen, who had spent her military career in the Navy, had been called up by the Navy Reserve to help out in New York City during the pandemic. Upon arrival she was shocked by the emptiness.
“We were in Manhattan, blocks away from Times Square and there were no people, no cars in sight,” she says. “It was a post-apocalyptic scene. It was so quiet. If you can imagine New York City as quiet.”
People were sheltering in place. So much so, that the hustle and bustle of New York City had come to a complete stop. Except for the hospitals.
“It was terrible,” says Rothen, who toured several hospitals before taking on her assignment at the Javits Convention Center, which was converted into a makeshift, militarized hospital. “There were people who were dead. There were people who were dying. They were so overcrowded in the emergency rooms. The staff was so overwhelmed. It was terrifying to be in those places.”
The Javits Center was a bit different. “It was much less chaotic than a regular hospital setting,” says Rothen. “Almost all the patients we treated came from other hospitals. They were step-downs from the ICU.”
And those patients had one request, time and time again. “Every patient that came in, you would fill out a questionnaire,” says Rothen. “What do you want? What is your main goal? Every one of them said, ‘My goal is to breathe.’ It was quite humbling.”
They weren’t concerned about a private room or a room with a TV and didn’t mind the cubicle setting at the Javits Center. “They were just thankful to be there,” she says.
However, “It felt like every patient we were nurturing towards wellness was also grieving a loved one, family, friend or neighbor. The grief was everywhere. It was heartbreaking.”
As for those under her care, “Beyond the grief was the fear,” says Rothen. “They were scared. They were scared to return home to the center of the infection, of infecting others, of relapsing.”
Rothen understood. For Rothen, her deployment had happened in a matter of dizzying days and was not without its concerns. “It was pretty unnerving,” she says. “You see all the stories and people are dying. You worry a little bit. My family was very worried.”
However dire the situation might have been, Rothen was greatly moved by the young soldiers and sailors there to help and their attentiveness to the patients. “These young military people were totally out of their element because they were not treating combat injuries out in the field,” she says. “They just dug right in and did what needed to be done.”
There was even more that needed to be done than offering their skills as medical professionals. There was a need for comfort and compassion. Facetiming was extremely important to patients who were isolated from their family and friends. “In times of grief and fear we often lean on a loved one for comfort,” says Rothen. “These patients were greeted by health care workers in masks and glasses and shields. We all sounded muffled. We all wore gloves. There were no interactions between patients.”
That’s where the young soldiers and sailors with their tech savvy stepped in and helped patients make connections via Facetiming and the like. “They were the best at helping patients connect to home,” says Rothen.
Now grateful to be back at her own home and back to her practice in Hagerstown, Rothen says, “I am glad I went. This was the first time the military was mobilized within the United States for a humanitarian mission. FEMA and the National Guard are there but to have soldiers and sailors was unique. It was a historical moment.”
Adding, “We are a pretty resilient nation and when we are faced with something that needs to be done, we can do it.”
“The Angel of Death Passed Through Our Unit That Night”
The shoes. Kelly Johnson cannot shake the image of the shoes from her mind.
One night after a long shift working with COVID-19 patients at a New York City Hospital, Johnson was watching television in her hotel room.
“It was a National Geographic show about the Titanic,” she says. “One of the comments that they made was when they go on the deep sea dives the bones and skeletons are gone. But what is not gone are the shoes – adults’ shoes, children’s shoes. That sparked something in me.”
Johnson was having her own agonizing experience with left-behind shoes.
“We had patients pass and their personal effects sometimes stayed there for days and days,” she says. “We didn’t know what to do with them. These patients had been in a totally COVID unit. It was a lot of shoes left behind. Loafers and sneakers left after their bodies had been taken away.”
Shoes that had been worn on the way in but would not be worn on the way out.
Johnson, a pediatric and women’s nurse at Meritus, was touched by the pleading of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for help for his citizens. “There was a desperation in his voice,” she says. “I was heartbroken for what their state was going through.”
Johnson, who had previous ICU experience, did not hesitate. In a matter of days, she contacted her supervisor and the human resources department at Meritus about her desire to go to New York City and help. “They released me with what I call a blessing and a be safe and don’t worry about your job, it will be here when you come back,” she says. “They were very supportive.”
And while she had heard the stories of what awaited her there, she said she was not prepared for what she actually experienced. “It was horrifying,” says Johnson. “I’ve worked ICU, but I’ve never experienced ICU at that level.”
Seven people coded within 20 minutes of each other one night while she was on her shift. “We lost all seven of them,” she says. “Normally, when someone has a sudden cardiac arrest there is a team, eight to 10 people, that are all there to give aid. There wasn’t enough help to go around.”
Adding, “It was like the angel of death passed through our unit that night.”
There was little time to reflect on the losses, though. “As people passed, we were refilling the beds almost instantaneously,” says Johnson. Many were elderly, she says. But there were also those in their 30s and 40s and some of them did not make it, says Johnson.
These patients were dying all alone without the comfort of family and friends due to the risk of exposure. To bridge the gap between them, many family members recorded prayers to be played to their loved ones as they lie dying.
But those were not the only prayers being said. Johnson recalls one patient of hers that she worried would not make it. “I literally texted my mom one night and said, ‘you need to pray for my patient’” recalls Johnson. “I don’t think she is going to be there tomorrow when I go back.”
But she was there. Not only that, she was alert, opening her eyes and responding to people.
And those were the moments that Johnson held and continues to hold close. “I have peace that I was doing what I needed to be doing,” she says.
“I’ve Never Seen an ER Look Like That”
Andrea Byrd’s 11-year-old son did not want her to go.
“He is at that age where he hears all the bad stuff with the pandemic and how dangerous it is,” says Byrd. “He was upset that I was choosing to put myself in the middle of that. Of course, I had to explain to him that out of all the doctors, nurses, firefighters, EMTs– if we all stayed home because our families were scared for us then there wouldn’t be anyone to help the ones who needed it.”
When the word came out from Butler Medical Transport that there was a need for EMTs in New York City, Byrd readily agreed to go. And while she was committed to the task ahead of her, she admits it was an adjustment.
“It kind of hit me how serious it was one night when I went to one of the hospitals in Queens,” says Byrd, who often worked 20-hour days. “The whole ER was just filled with beds. You could barely walk. I was looking for my patient to transport to another hospital, and I couldn’t find the patient for the longest time. I’ve never seen an ER look like that. And every hospital looked like that in New York. Every single one.”
However, she remained focused no matter how challenging it was. “I thought to myself, there are all these people in serious need and yes, it is scary but a whole city is terrified right now,” she says. “They need our help.”
Sometimes despite the best of intentions, the help came too late for so many. And Byrd bore witness to the countless lives lost. She recalls driving to the back of a hospital and seeing the refrigerator units there. Too great were the number of bodies and makeshift morgues had to be set up.
“The tarp doors blew open and I saw inside,” says Byrd.
She saw bodies upon bodies lying on shelves within the refrigerated unit. “I was thinking about the families and how their loved ones are just crammed into this container, on a shelf, just lying there,” she says.
Not that there weren’t signs of hope as well. “New York City treated us like guardian angels that had dropped out of the sky,” says Byrd.
“Every evening people would come out and clap their hands and bang on pots and pans to show support for us and the nurses and doctors,” she says. “It was beautiful to see how everyone supported each other and were there for each other during one of the most horrific times we’ve seen in a while.”
Home safe now with her son and daughter, Byrd has no regrets and would do it again.
“100 times over,” she says.