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Outbreak Diaries: Answering A Call For Help In New York City


A few weeks ago, Julie Sullivan was working at a hospital in Austin, Texas. She's a respiratory therapist. But the hospital wasn't experiencing a coronavirus surge, not like other places in the U.S. Sullivan wanted to put her skills where they were most needed. So she quit her job and joined the ranks of temporary health care workers. She went to New York, the state with the most hospitalizations in the U.S. due to COVID-19 and the most deaths. Julie Sullivan kept this account of her first weeks in Brooklyn for our Outbreak Diaries Project.

JULIE SULLIVAN: I was put up in a hotel graciously by the state of New York - very thankful for it. The first one I went to ended up being a crack hotel. At least that's what the Uber driver told me when he picked me up. It was in a terrible location - a very, very rundown - cigarette smoked. And so they put me in a different hotel in kind of a shady part of town for someone who's female and alone and from a small town in Texas. It's already kind of shocking to come into such a big city and try to navigate how things are done here.

It is Friday, April 17. It's 02:40 in the morning. I am just now sitting down for my break for tonight. The beginning my shift was crazy. It was like a war room in the respiratory report room - so many people were trying to figure out what assignment to take. I was put with a therapist with a lot of experience in the surgical ICU. We had 14 vents between the two of us. When I first got there, a patient that had just been brought in from the OR went into cardiac arrest. We had to replace the breathing tube. The cuff had a leak in it. So he was not ventilating well. About 20 minutes after that, another patient coded in another room - we got him back. See. After that, another patient in another room coded. He did not make it. And he was only 22 years old. I'm tired - just been running around crazy all night. It's sad the resident had to call the other family of that patient that died. And she said, I'm just so weary of all of this, having to make these phone calls. It's just getting to me. And she started bawling at the nurse's station.

Good morning. Today is Saturday, April 18. It's 07:11 in the morning. I just finished my second 12-plus-hour shift at the hospital. The biggest stressor for me, I feel like, right now is just when I go to the unit wondering if I'm going to have the right protective equipment to use. It's just very humbling, the things that we're having to do and things we're seeing. It's a bunch of travelers. Even the nurses - none of us know where anything is. And we're all in there just thrown in there together trying to make a difference, trying to help. And, like, last night, I had three patients die. I didn't even get a chance to really look at their history and know their names. And I think that's something that weighs heaviest on my heart - is that these poor people are out there alone.

Today is Sunday, April 19. Last night was actually not a horrible night. We actually had lots of staff. All of us travelers have gotten started. I spoke, actually, with a neurosurgeon turned into a COVID-doctor. And he was so thankful that I went over the ventilator with him because the ventilators, the LTV 1200s that the government dropped off - they were not a vent that anyone there knew how to use. He said that he had to watch a YouTube video to get tutorial information on how to even set that vent because a neurosurgeon - they don't really run ventilators. They are dealing with operating on your brain. So it's just amazing all the cogs that are in place. Everyone has just stepped up to the plate and is working so hard. So I'm off tonight, thankfully. I plan on getting some dinner, finding a good movie on TV and just hunkering down and trying to sleep for, like, 13 hours. I'm so tired.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Julie Sullivan, a traveling respiratory therapist. She documented her time in Brooklyn for our Outbreak Diaries Project. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.