Florida nurse joins fight against coronavirus at New York hospital
A nurse who left Florida earlier this month to join in the fight against the coronavirus in the hardest-hit state in the country said she's grateful for the chance to help others.
It was a grim homecoming for western New York native Rycky Ann Pera when she arrived in the emergency room at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan on April 5. Now, nearly halfway through her eight-week contract, she said she doesn't regret her decision in the slightest.
"If I had to do it all over again, I would absolutely come back and help these people," Pera told the News Journal on Thursday. "They're the most grateful bunch of people, from the people on the street, to the patients, to the nurses I'm working with that accepted all us newbies that don't know where everything is at."
A registered nurse in Ascension Sacred Heart Hospital's surgical services department, Pera said her hours were slashed to an average of about 16 a week by mid-March as the hospital stopped elective surgeries to focus on the COVID-19 outbreak.
So when a health care recruiting agency she had signed up with presented an eight-week contract at Mount Sinai, Pera jumped at the chance to not only work full-time again but to return to her roots as an emergency room nurse.
"The emergency room is where I was working when I left western New York, that's where my heart is," Pera said. "I love ER nursing."
The decision to leave Pensacola wasn't easy. Pera had to leave her two daughters, ages 18 and 6, with close friends. Her significant other is in the Air Force; he was stationed recently at Hurlburt Field but is currently deployed to Guantanamo Bay.
To make ends meet, Pera also worked as a bartender for 15 to 20 hours a week at World of Whiskey on North Navy Boulevard, formerly known as the Woodshed Grill & Brew Pub, on top of her full-time nursing job. That side source of income had also run dry as the pandemic shuttered bars throughout the state.
So Pera boarded a plane in early April, knowing she was about to tackle the most trying experience of her career.
Since arriving in New York, Pera has primarily worked in Mount Sinai's emergency room COVID-19 unit. She said there's been no rhyme or reason for the volume of patients the hospital has seen over the last three weeks. Monday was one of the most hectic days yet, she said, explaining that six symptomatic patients needed to be intubated or hooked up to ventilators.
"Generally speaking, when someone comes into an ER, you wait for a doctor to put in an order of what labs a patient needs, thing like that, but if you know they are presumptive for COVID, which, everyone who comes into the green pod is presumptive positive, you have to get a line started immediately," Pera said. "There's about 12 different labs that are drawn, urine analysis done immediately, COVID swabs immediately. If they need it you're placing them on oxygen, you're providing hydration and antibiotics."
Pera is working 12-hour shifts four days a week. She said the volume of patients treated for COVID-19 varies by the day. One surefire pattern among patients to test positive for the deadly virus is a certain type of visible pneumonia.
"There's a classic pneumonia they are noticing in everyone's lungs that are testing positive for this virus," she said. "The ones who come in coughing, gasping for air, can't breathe. They lose their breath walking across the room. The normal people you wouldn't expect to be winded by getting out of a chair and walking from one room to the next."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report New York has confirmed well over 250,000 positive cases as of this week, close to three times as many cases as the second-highest ranking state, the bordering New Jersey. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo confirmed that at least 422 people died of the virus on Thursday alone, before saying that evidence suggests New York is on "the downside of the curve," according to reports from CNN.
"There's so many people that live here and so many people that are from different parts of the world," Pera said, on New York's population. "I think every immigrant and their brother comes to New York City to live."
A hot-button issue in New York since the pandemic began has been supplies and equipment. Pera said that as far as she knows, Mount Sinai in Manhattan hasn't had shortages on ventilators or most personal protective equipment, and the recruiting agencies have helped fill staff voids. But the hospital has braced for mask shortages, she said.
"Anybody in the health care field knows N95 masks are only good for eight hours," she said. "But you're usually wearing the same one for 12. You're asked to keep that same mask in a paper lunch bag and then you bring it back with you the next day just in case there is not a new one for you. I have not run into that problem, but you are asked to save that and your face shield every night just in case."
It's lonely, anxious walk from the hotel where Pera is staying to work every day, as a cavalcade of emotions rush across her mind each morning. She knows her health could be compromised during any given shift.
"I have anxiety normally, and my anxiety is through the roof on all of this," Pera said. "I have emergency room experience, but the emergency room I worked in, in Western New York, although it was a great emergency room, the level of trauma we are dealing with in this ER is times 10 what we were dealing with in Niagara Falls. If anyone came in that sick in Niagara Falls, we'd stabilize them and ship to Buffalo, to bigger hospitals."
A true silver lining in Pera's chaotic three-week stint in the belly of the coronavirus beast has been the appreciation from the community, she said. In Pensacola, citizens have expressed their gratitude toward health care employees in a multitude of ways over the past couple of months, and Pera said the same has been true in the much larger NYC.
"We walk home at 7 o'clock at night and there's thousands of people hanging out their windows screaming and clapping as we walk down Third Avenue to go home," Pera said. "McDonald's is giving free meals, Starbucks is giving free coffee. I mean, they're so grateful out here."
Jake Newby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-435-8538.
This story originally published to pnj.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.