Diary of a Night at Samaritan’s Purse Central Park Hospital
For five weeks, in the height of the coronavirus outbreak in New York City, as night fell, a dedicated team of medical professionals showed up for work at the Samaritan’s Purse emergency field hospital in Central Park. This is the story of the night as they battled the deadly COVID-19 pandemic in the tents.
The night shift arrives. Most of them have gotten just a few hours of sleep despite having gotten back to their rooms 11 hours ago. Even as they drive back to the site, they know they never actually left it.
Nurses begin checking in on patients.
“Every night when we come in, we pray that we won’t see the same faces,” said nurse anesthetist Corinne. “It is heartbreaking to see the same people here every night, fighting for life. We love them and just want to see them whole and healthy again.”
All is peaceful. There are six patients in ICU. They all seem sound asleep. You would never know that they are fighting for their lives. You can hear the sound of the oxygen flowing, like the tent itself is breathing. Nurses check on each patient, stroking their foreheads and holding their hands as they talk to them.
They go about their work meticulously, taking all necessary steps for infectious disease protocol. It is important that they keep themselves safe as well. They don’t want to be a statistic, but they aren’t afraid either.
The silence is shattered as a patient is rushed into ICU. He is thrashing, gasping for air. The nurses shout his name and try to calm him. After five minutes of struggle that feel like an eternity, he is finally at peace. He has breath again, even though it goes in and out of his lungs at a frantic pace. The team is then able to get to work. Large tubes go in. Small tubes go in. By 8:22 PM, all is quiet again. The patient’s family calls. The doctor assures them that he’s stable. He’s now on a ventilator. He’ll get good care here. This family is calm. The doctor says not all of them are.
A man in his 50s wakes up. The nurses remove his bedpan and tenderly clean him. He looks embarrassed to be reduced to having someone wipe him clean. They cover him with a new, warm blanket, and their eyes smile at him through the plastic protective shield. When they turn him sideways, he is able to help them. They call him “strongman,” and the corners of his mouth try to force themselves into a smile around his breathing tube. His wife has told them that he is stubborn, but that he has a strong faith. They ask him if it would be OK for them to pray for him at this moment. Later, they say he tries to exert himself too much, and they have had to change his tubes frequently because of the secretions that harden inside of it. They become like rocks blocking the airflow in the tube. It’s like breathing through a coffee stirrer instead of a straw.
The strongman crashes. His oxygen saturation drops suddenly and his pulse fades. A team of five rush to his bed. Once again, his breathing tube is clogged by secretions that look like rocks. One of the team hooks up what looks like a plastic two-liter bottle and begins squeezing to breathe for him. They work frantically and are able to get his oxygen saturation back up to 96 percent. They get his tubes changed.
“I’ve been caring for patients for 40 years, and I have never seen so many people gasping for air at the same time,” said nurse practitioner Tim. “I’ve just never seen anything like it. People who were living their normal lives this time last week are now fighting for each breath.”
“It’s like at midnight each night, they all spike fevers at the same time, and their bodies become chaos,” said nurse anesthetist Kirsten. “All of them. All at the same time. Every night. This isn’t the flu. This is nothing like the flu.”
The announcement comes over the radio. The patient in Bed 20 has passed away. Nurse Sonja looks down at her feet and sighs. “That wasn’t my patient, but it hits us all hard when we lose one.”
Nurses Chelsea, Ann, and Tim continue to prepare the body of the patient in Bed 20 to be taken to a morgue off-site. This isn’t the first patient they have lost, and they each know their places as they perform this last act of service for this man. They tenderly clean him and then fill out the paperwork. They gently place the body in a white bag, seal it, then transfer it to a gurney to be wheeled out of the tent. The patient in Bed 21 is resting peacefully, unaware of what has taken place next to him.
The strongman is awake again. He has no idea how severe his situation was just a few hours ago. The nurse tells him he’s looking good, and he waves his big hand at her, then a thumbs up. He wants to sit up, to communicate. They tell him not to exert himself too much. His head falls back again, eyes close, and his chest rises and falls in a steady rhythm. Everyone is asleep again with the pulsing sound of the oxygen swirling around them.
The final and hardest two hours of the shift have begun. They do their rounds once more, taking specimens for labs and checking vitals. They want to hand off peaceful wards to their day shift counterparts.
The teams begin boarding the shuttle back to their rooms. They have shed most of their PPE, but their masks are still on. The shuttle is silent. The quiet is cut by a reminder that comes with the sunrise. There’s a verse in the Psalms that says, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” CRA