When the coronavirus pandemic hit the mainland U.S. in March, the hospital in El Paso, Texas where Shannon Wright ‘15 worked as a nurse was already experiencing troubles. But when elective procedures were canceled, the hospital began laying people off.
It was a weird feeling—Wright kept hearing about the nationwide shortage of healthcare professionals elsewhere, but she couldn’t get hours at her hospital.
“At the time, I was working in a facility that just kept calling me off and I wasn’t getting hours,” says Wright. “I kept seeing on the news that everyone needed help, and I kept getting called off. I really wanted to help the people who needed me most.”
So on Saturday, April 4, she hopped on the phone with a FEMA recruiter. They were recruiting healthcare professionals from around the U.S. to help the nation’s hardest-hit city, New York.
“The recruiter said ‘we need you and we need you to get here on Monday if you’re doing it,’” remembers Wright. “It only left me two days to make a decision.”
By April 6, she was on an empty plane to New York City.
Her parents and her boyfriend didn’t want her to go. The disease was so unknown, and stories of medical professionals getting sick and dying were flooding the airwaves.
“Everyone was like, ‘you should just write your will now,’” says Wright. “I was super freaked out signing up, and I cried the whole way to New York. I kept wondering if I was making the wrong decision,” says Wright. She was one of only three people on the flight from Texas to New York. It was an eerie feeling. But she was driven by her desire to serve those who needed her the most.
When she landed at the empty airport, she immediately grabbed a taxi to her hotel in Times Square.
“The cab ride through the city was beautiful—I had never been to New York before,” says the California native. “I started to feel much better. But then we got to Times Square which was completely empty and I got really scared again.”
The hotel was reserved for other FEMA healthcare professionals and there were strict safety restrictions in place. Residents weren’t allowed to socialize or have people in their rooms, and other than a cleaning crew once a week and one person at the front desk, there was no hotel staff. The kitchen was also closed, so Wright used delivery services for most of her meals.
Right away she went to an orientation where she met a few other new arrivals. They formed a text message chain, and throughout their time regularly texted each other to check in on one another.
Wright was assigned to a hospital in the Bronx. Every day, a bus would come to pick up her and the other nurses and drop them off at the hospital.
Her first day was eye-opening, and set the tone for what was to come. She was immediately placed on a team that was tasked with creating a brand new ICU unit.
“They had an overflow unit connected to their emergency room, so my team and I had to create a coronavirus ICU unit,” describes Wright. “We made a whole ICU unit from scratch within a day.”
They worked quickly to get the extra basement space ready and gather all necessary supplies, but they couldn’t work fast enough. Halfway through the day, before the unit was ready, hospital staff started wheeling in patients. They had run out of room in other parts of the hospital and were desperately trying to find places to put people.
“They were wheeling in patients while we were trying to get set up, and we were realizing things that we didn’t have, all at the same time. Patients were coding on us, and we didn’t have the right supplies.” Wright’s voice goes soft as she describes what it was like to have patients who suddenly couldn’t breathe while she and her colleagues frantically tried to find the right equipment to respond.
Supplies were scarce throughout the city—not just at her hospital. One of her friends worked at a hospital that completely ran out of oxygen, which was in high demand. Sometimes they just couldn’t get what they needed and had to figure out how to make do with what they had. In Wright’s unit, they were putting patients on really old ventilators that should have been retired, because the new ones were already being used.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) also quickly became a scarce commodity.
“At the start, we had amazing PPE and they were letting us change out our N95 respirators every day,” says Wright. “But halfway through the contract, things changed and they were making us reuse N95s and weren’t letting us use hair covers. They wanted us to use the same gown for 5 days. They made a full switch, and all of a sudden we didn’t have what we needed any more.”
It was up to each individual to figure out how to make it work.
Wright had signed a contract to work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week for 21 days. The long days without a break were exhausting.
“The whole time you can’t really breathe, and you can’t really talk,” says Wright. “You have a surgical mask over your N95, and you’re using tape around the edges to seal it off, and you’re breathing in your own CO2 and getting really really bad headaches for 12-hours straight.”
During the days, adrenaline would kick in and Wright was focused on her patients. But at the end of the day, when she’d go back to her quiet hotel room, the fatigue would come crashing down and the anxiety hit hard.
“When I got home every single night I would scrub my body nonstop,” says Wright. “I felt like I was dying, I thought I was dying. I would call my family all the time. I think I was just exhausted and run down.”
The physical exhaustion was real, but it was the emotional drain that was really taking a toll on Wright’s wellbeing.
In the month of April, the death toll in New York was six times higher than its average for that time of year. Wright’s first week at the hospital was the deadliest week on record. News stories of patients being turned away from hospitals, doctors making unthinkable life and death decisions and refrigerated trucks being called in to store bodies shocked households across the nation.
Wright had worked in a level 1 trauma center before but had never seen anything like what she saw in New York.
“I would go to lunch and leave the hospital, and outside I’d see the refrigerated trucks because the morgues were so overwhelmed,” she recalls.
She did her best to be a calming presence for her patients, all the while feeling anything but calm.
“They would wheel a patient in and sometimes they would be really scared,” said Wright. “You’d be talking to them and they’d be fine, and within that same minute all of a sudden you had to intubate them because they couldn’t breathe. And you’re wondering if you’re going to be the last face they see.”
For Wright, the hardest part was watching patients suffer alone, without having their families by their sides. She would try to set up FaceTime calls for her patients so families could see their loved ones.
“Just sitting there knowing these are people, you feel hopeless,” describes Wright, her voice shaking audibly over the phone. “You’re doing everything you can, but you don’t know enough about this disease yet to know if they’re going to come out of it.”
When asked about her mental health, Wright admits it’s taken a toll.
“Chaminade prepared me to be a nurse, but I don’t think anything could have prepared me for seeing that many people die at once,” she says. “You just see people nonstop who were there one second, and alive, and then gone the next. You’re body-bagging so many people who you were just caring for. It’s definitely traumatic.”
But Wright persisted. And when her 21-day contract was over, she agreed to stay another week. Because in between all the darkness, Wright was able to find moments of beauty.
Like when a patient recovered and had their ventilator removed.
“When we extubated a patient, they’d play a fight song over the hospital PA system so everyone knew there was good news, and we would all start crying.”
Her hospital was also one of the first to participate in antibody plasma trials, where patients who were on ventilators received donated plasma from individuals who had already recovered from COVID-19 and had antibodies. She noticed a drastic improvement in the patients who received the trial treatment.
“There were patients who had been on the ventilators for a month and weren’t showing any signs of improvements,” she says. “But then we gave them the blood and within a week everything started to look like it was improving.”
When her time in New York had come to a close, Wright initially struggled to find a flight home—everything was canceled. But she ultimately found an airline who let her fly for free as a first responder. When she got back to El Paso, she booked a vacation rental to quarantine herself for two weeks and recuperate before returning home and seeing her boyfriend.
She had given up her job at the hospital, so after spending some time at home she ventured out to visit her family in California. At the time of her interview in June, she had been with them for three weeks, relaxing and recovering, and making sure they wore their masks.
“I’m more scared of getting coronavirus in public now because I’ve seen how bad it can get—and it wasn’t just elderly people or immunocompromised people. It was healthy, young people.”
While she is no longer afraid of caring for a coronavirus patient, she is much more cautious about being in public. Wright acknowledges that things have gotten better and healthcare professionals have a better idea of what they’re doing now, but the illness is still very unpredictable.
As for her career, she doesn’t know what will come next. She’s slowly starting the job hunt, but she’s also just trying to take time to process everything she felt and witnessed in New York. Part of her wants a slower-paced job now, but long term she knows that she would miss the thrill of the emergency room.
In the meantime, life definitely feels more precious now and she’s just trying to spend time with her family.
“A lot of it was a blur and I have trouble expressing exactly how it was,” shares Wright. “But I am beyond glad that I went. It was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had in my life. I met some amazing nurses and people that I will remember for the rest of my life.”