Editor’s Note: As New York’s COVID-19 pandemic was peaking earlier this spring, Diana Cruz was working part-time at a New York-area hospital in patient logistics, assigning beds to admitted patients and overseeing bed movement on all units. Cruz, an undergraduate journalism major at Hunter College, shared her story of that experience at the front lines of the coronavirus crisis, but asked that the name of the hospital be left out of the story to protect patient privacy, her coworkers and the hospital itself.
The hospital’s overhead speaker crackled.
Anticipating a “code blue” for a stroke, heart attack or newly intubated patient, every masked employee in the hospital’s nursing office where I work on Long Island looked up with dread.
The codes had been sounding nearly every hour for weeks now — the new normal ever since the hospital became overrun with COVID-19 patients in the middle of March.
But instead of a code, we heard something else — the first few seconds of the Beatles tune “Here Comes The Sun.” Everyone sighed with relief. The song was the hospital’s way of announcing that a COVID-19 patient had just been discharged.
My job is to assign beds at the hospital, including the limited number we had for diagnoses, like COVID-19, that required isolated rooms.
It was the first week of March when we admitted our first possible COVID-19 patient. The patient was showing symptoms, so I assigned them to an isolated room. At the time, they were the only possible COVID-19 patient in the building, but it caused a stir among the nurses, who couldn’t believe the virus had finally made it all the way here after weeks of speculating when it would arrive in New York.
Then, when I returned to work the following week, we had several more patients with the symptoms of COVID-19.
Another week passed, and by now New York City had become the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the entire United States.
So while my friends and family went into social isolation in their homes, each other day I had to put on a surgical mask and trek to work to assign beds to new patients.
Diana Cruz’s Discharge Playlist
In those days, they are all COVID-19 patients. And any bed assigned is a victory.
I am fortunate that my office is in the basement of the hospital, far away from patients and thus with a slim chance of putting me into contact with the coronavirus. But I work closely with the nursing supervisors and administrators who juggled worsening problems as the case numbers piled up day by day.
There were numerous complications for me too. For instance, two positive COVID-19 patients of the same sex could share a room (most of the rooms in our approximately 200-bed hospital are two-person). But other patients who tested negative would have to have their own room to avoid exposure.
And each hour, the number of patients waiting in the emergency department increased.
Eventually, supervisors would have to call for a “diversion” — that is, for the local ambulance services to stop bringing in patients. Then there were days where patients would pass away in the ED before even getting a proper evaluation.
A stream of nurses would come into my office, stressed, their faces swollen from hours of wearing their tight-fitting N95 masks.
And once a nurse called, hysterical because she had to decide between letting a patient without COVID-19 live or giving their ventilator to COVID-19 patient who needed it. In the end, she gave the ventilator to the COVID-19 patient. The first patient perished.
Then coworkers started falling ill with the virus themselves, and the hospital recommended most employees wear the N95 mask instead of the regular surgical mask.
Fortunately, none of the staff died or even were very seriously ill. In fact, 96 percent of the employees have taken antibody tests and most have come back negative, meaning that our efforts to stay protected have worked.
And since then, there have been a lot of other improvements. For starters, we have gotten fewer COVID-19 admissions. Nowadays, only 1 in 5 cases I have to assign is diagnosed positive.
We now even have designated “clean” units – that is, units that are only for patients testing negative. There, employees actually must remove the personal protective equipment required elsewhere in the hospital.
Yet we know the pandemic is far from over and are already talking about an imminent second wave, projected to be worse than the first. But in the meantime, we see ourselves as healthcare heroes. We have experience, we have preparation and we are ready to battle the next stage of the virus, in whatever form it will come.
We’ll be ready, and we’ll know the stakes. During the peak days in April, every loss at our hospital hit hard. There were some days when hearing family members cry on the phone, or seeing another death in the ED hurt too much and I simply had to step away from my station.
But then, walking through the halls to calm myself, I would see the hand-drawn posters from children hung up around the units, thanking everyone in the hospital for all their hard work and sacrifice. I would see recovered coworkers returning, looking bright and ready for the day’s haul. I would realize how important my work was.
So I would get back to my desk. And I would wait for the next time I would hear the speaker crackle to life with the opening strains of “Here Comes The Sun.”
This report is part of joint project to cover the coronavirus crisis in New York between City Limits and urban health and environment reporting students in Hunter College’s Journalism Program. Also see the students’ May 5 live blogging report from around the metro area. The project is part of the Hunter Journalism program’s Contagion Coverage Project, which has more than 70 students reports from the last few months in video, audio and text.