In the middle of National Nurses Month, three Brooklyn nurses from Woodhull Hospital are reflecting on the many catastrophes they have gone through in their careers, and none comes close to COVID-19. Even as they are regarded as heroes by many because of their exhaustive work as first responders, they say some still think they could have done more to help patients who didn’t make it.
Eloise Nangle, an RN in the intensive care unit, said the challenge posed by the pandemic surpassed those of Ebola, Hurricane Sandy and 9/11.
“COVID was unknown and that was overwhelming on itself,” Nangle said. “What we knew before did not apply to COVID no matter what we did.”
Nangle recalled how the darkest days of the pandemic started soon after the first cases at the hospital.
“When I came in, I came into chaos,” Nangle said. “There were people everywhere and everybody was running frantically. I took a deep breath, I said a prayer and said, ‘Okay, let’s go.’ I jumped into the emergency room order right away. ‘What do we need to do? What does my team need help with?’ And we started working together and helping each other, going from room to room. Then, about two weeks in, I felt like I was in the valley of the shadow, of death. There were bodies everywhere. Patients were not responding to treatment. We had discussion after discussion, ‘What else can we do? What else should we try?’ Using all our critical thinking, all our knowledge, was not helping these patients.”
More than 40,000 people have died from COVID in New York City since the first outbreak two years ago. At the peak of the first wave in April 2020, the city’s healthcare system treated thousands of hospitalized patients each day.
Nangle and her colleague Nicola Madou, an RN in the medical surgical unit, agree that the biggest “misconception” people within their community have is that nurses haven’t done all they can to help their patients through the pandemic.
“We actually fight to save the lives of our patients,” said Madou. “We did our very best. We went above and beyond, but you hear it in the community. You hear it from other people who weren’t able to come in at to visit and take care of their family. They may think there is something we’re hiding because they cannot see us work.”
While the numbers have fluctuated as variants have come and gone, the darkest days of the pandemic seem long gone — the days of constant sirens and overflowing hospitals are, hopefully, over. But the impact facing the terrifying disease had on nurses is not.
“I don’t think we will ever be the same again after going through COVID,” said Noorzahan Akter, an RN in emergency nursing.
Once cheered on from hundreds of windows and balconies across the city each night, now nurses are back to providing day-to-day, lifesaving care mostly “off the spotlight.” But some New Yorkers have not forgotten.
“The community really came together and supported us during that time,” said Nangle. “We were given food, we got gifts, we got a lot of support from the colleges, schools, centers, kids. They call us heroes, but I guess like all heroes, we couldn’t save everybody.”