‘We call it air hunger,’ Dayton nurse says of treating coronavirus patients in New York

Dayton nurses Stacy Thomas and Sabrina Harrison-Dean are working in New York as part of the battle against coronavirus.
Dayton nurses Stacy Thomas and Sabrina Harrison-Dean are working in New York as part of the battle against coronavirus.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Dayton-area nurses share what it’s like to fight coronavirus in one of the nation’s deadliest epicenters.

It is not only the fear of death Stacy Thomas says she has seen on the faces of the COVID-19 patients she’s helped treat in New York during the last two weeks.

It is desperation.

“They don’t understand what’s going on and they want us to help them immediately. There’s nothing that we can do to just flip the switch and turn that off for them,” she said.

“We put them on oxygen and it lessens it a little bit, but the look on their faces, it might be more of a fear or panic because they’re scared and they don’t know what’s going on. They’ve been listening to the news and the news is telling them that they’re going to die from this disease and they have that constant fear in the back of their mind — so I think that’s the look on their faces.”

Thomas is one of numerous local nurses who have answered calls to help communities with medical staff shortages in hotspot cities fighting the the coronavirus.

Dayton nurse Stacy Thomas is working in New York as part of the battle against coronavirus. She works for Miami Valley Hospital and is an Air Force reservist on the critical care air transport team.
Dayton nurse Stacy Thomas is working in New York as part of the battle against coronavirus. She works for Miami Valley Hospital and is an Air Force reservist on the critical care air transport team.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

The virus has no known cure. The treatments for the most serious cases can come with complications.

Thomas said health care workers try their best, but sometimes it is not enough.

“We call it air hunger,” the 34-year-old Oregon District resident said. “It almost feels like you're drowning. You're not able to breathe.”

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An emergency medical nurse practitioner at Miami Valley Hospital and a critical-care air transport team reservist for the U.S. Air Force, Thomas signed on to work for about a month in New York City, one of the nation’s coronavirus epicenters.

In a few short months, more than 150,000 people have tested positive for the disease in New York state, with nearly 11,000 deaths.

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By comparison, Ohio, the nation’s seventh largest state by population, had 14,983 confirmed cases of coronavirus on April 25. There were 671 confirmed COVID-19 deaths.

The statistics have been improving for New York, a city that Thomas visited two years ago to meet up with a friend and the Broadway musical “Hamilton.” The city was bustling then. But now, the spot in Time Square where she took one of her favorite photos from that trip is empty.

Dayton nurse Stacy Thomas is working in New York as part of the battle against coronavirus. She works for Miami Valley Hospital and is an Air Force reservist on the critical care air transport team. She visited New York two years ago. This photo was taken at the exact spot a picture was taken when the city was bustling.
Dayton nurse Stacy Thomas is working in New York as part of the battle against coronavirus. She works for Miami Valley Hospital and is an Air Force reservist on the critical care air transport team. She visited New York two years ago. This photo was taken at the exact spot a picture was taken when the city was bustling.

“MY FIGHT SONG”

Thomas said things are somewhat calmer at Jacobi Medical Center, the Bronx hospital where she mostly works, than when she first arrived.

Because she works in the emergency department, which quickly sends the very sick to other departments for care, she only knows by word of mouth from colleagues or the loudspeaker how people fared.

Singer Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” has been a rallying call that has brought joy.

It is played over the hospital’s loudspeaker when a coronavirus patient is so improved that they can be removed from mechanical ventilation, she said.

“‘This is my fight song. Take back my life song. Prove I'm alright song’,” Thomas sang. “They play that on the loudspeaker and everybody goes crazy. Just for a brief moment in time everybody pauses what they do and they start dancing and clapping and hooting and hollering because we know that we’ve beat one more case. It’s a great feeling.”

Hearing the song carries so much meaning because the vast majority of those placed on a mechanical ventilator do not survive, Thomas said.

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A new study conducted by the Northwell Health COVID-19 Research Consortium backs up her statement.

The group examined records of 5,700 COVID-19 patients hospitalized between March 1 and April 4 at facilities overseen by Northwell Health, New York state's largest health system.

The overall coronavirus death rate was 21 percent for the 2,634 patients for which outcomes were known. The death toil skyrocketed to 88 percent for those placed on mechanical ventilation, the report published April 22  by the "Journal of the American Medical Association." 

Thomas is no stranger to taxing situations. She was deployed to Afghanistan to transport sick and injured soldiers.

Although things seem to be getting quieter at her Bronx hospital, her 12-hour days in New York have at times felt like war.

An ER nurse for six years, Thomas said she she knows the flu can be deadly. Coronavirus is another ball game.

“Healthy people come into the ER just gasping for air and the look on their face is just something that I've never seen before with influenza,” she said “The way that their lungs sound and the way that they don't respond to normal treatment, and it’s tough — and yeah, this is this is worse than the flu.”

She signed on to go to New York because she could not sit back and not help.

“These health care workers are struggling and they (New York hospitals) are all short staffed. They're overwhelmed,” she said. “Now that everybody's social distancing, we're starting to see a decreases in COVID. But it's still very prevalent, and there's still a lot of cases. They are still struggling, but with this extra help from new travel nurses that have come in, it's manageable.”

Thomas said she fears what would have happened to the state’s hospital system without the extra nurses and intervention from the military.

Dayton nurse Stacy Thomas is working in New York as part of the battle against coronavirus.  She is pictured with other health care workers on the bus to Jacobi Medical Center.
Dayton nurse Stacy Thomas is working in New York as part of the battle against coronavirus. She is pictured with other health care workers on the bus to Jacobi Medical Center.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

It wouldn’t surprise her if she became ill with coronavirus like many of New York’s health care workers.

“A lot of them have already come back and are now back, treating COVID patients,” she said.

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Originally from Muskegon on the crystal-clear shores of the state of Michigan, Thomas said she first became interested in nursing after her father was hit head-on by a drunken driver and almost died.

“He actually had to undergo 12 surgeries and he lost one of his legs. I was there with him every step of the way. Just watching the nurses take care of him, I immediately knew I wanted to be like that. I wanted to be a nurse,” Thomas said.

Dayton nurse Stacy Thomasis working in New York as part of the battle against coronavirus.  She is pictured with her fiance Matt Corcoran at Glacier National Park where he proposed marriage. The couple lives in the Oregon District with their cat Sancho.
Dayton nurse Stacy Thomasis working in New York as part of the battle against coronavirus. She is pictured with her fiance Matt Corcoran at Glacier National Park where he proposed marriage. The couple lives in the Oregon District with their cat Sancho.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Sarah Hackenbracht, president and CEO of the Greater Dayton Area Hospital Association, an organization that represents 25 medical facilities in the Dayton region, said that it is unclear how many local nurses and other health care workers are helping fight coronavirus in other communities.

Each medical practitioner makes arrangements with their employers.

Some, like Clayton's Staci Hedke, a nurse with Ohio's Hospice of Dayton previously featured by this news organization, have shared their experience on social media for family members, friends and strangers. Others fly under the radar.

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Hackenbracht did not know how many Dayton health care workers have joined the fight against coronavirus in other states, but she has heard of some who have.

She and her staff have been impressed by the cooperative and collaborative spirit local hospital systems have shown.

“I think that this situation in particular has demonstrated the caring and compassionate nature of our health care workers,” she said. “It is especially heartwarming to know this is who we have in our community.”

“DON’T STOP BELIEVIN’”

Since arriving on April 1, Dayton-based registered nurse Sabrina Harrison-Dean has been working daily 12-hours shifts at Bellevue Hospital, a Level One trauma center located in Manhattan.

It is one of the nation’s largest hospitals and is its oldest.

Harrison-Dean, typically a traveling health care executive who holds a doctorate of business administration with a concentration in health care administration, said she wanted to serve the community and share her knowledge.

“I've been in health care for 30 years, and I've been an RN for 25 years,” the Clayton resident said. “It's really been a true blessing to be able to help the patients; help them transition to the other side as far as death or transition back home.”

Reached by phone several days ago, she called the experience an often hectic, emotional roller coaster.

Many people have died, she said.

Sabrina Harrison-Dean, a registered nurse with 30 years experience in healthcare,  is working in New York as part of the battle against coronavirus. The traveling healthcare executive lives in Dayton with her husband and dog.
Sabrina Harrison-Dean, a registered nurse with 30 years experience in healthcare, is working in New York as part of the battle against coronavirus. The traveling healthcare executive lives in Dayton with her husband and dog.

“It's fast paced. You just never know what's going to happen,” she said. “For example, in the last couple of hours of my shift today, we had a patient, where their oxygen level was going down in one room, and then someone called out a couple of rooms down, ‘we need help.’ So all the resources leaving this station go to the other things.”

When a coronavirus patient progresses positively or is released, the Journey song “Don't Stop Believin'” plays over the loudspeaker.

Harrison-Dean said she and the nurses she has worked with aim to give people that hands-on care expected from nurses, even though they are dressed as if heading into battle in N95 masks and other protective gear.

Sabrina Harrison-Dean, a registered nurse with 30 years experience in healthcare,  is working in New York as part of the battle against coronavirus. The traveling healthcare executive lives in Clayton  with her husband and dog.
Sabrina Harrison-Dean, a registered nurse with 30 years experience in healthcare, is working in New York as part of the battle against coronavirus. The traveling healthcare executive lives in Clayton with her husband and dog.

Credit: Submitted

Credit: Submitted

The 1988 Meadowdale High School graduate shared a story about one recent patient.

“We were praying together, reciting Psalms 91, because he was having a difficult time breathing,” she said. “They are just very grateful, very gracious for all the help that we have given.”

The entire city has a spirit of thanks, she said, noting the firetruck parades at the end of many shifts.

“They just blow their horns and sirens and everything just showing gratitude as we're walking into work or leaving,” Harrison-Dean said. “I'm happy that I made the decision to come and I'll be here till it's over with,” she said.

Sabrina Harrison-Dean, a registered nurse with 30 years experience in healthcare,  is working in New York as part of the battle against coronavirus. The traveling healthcare executive lives in Clayton  with her husband and dog.
Sabrina Harrison-Dean, a registered nurse with 30 years experience in healthcare, is working in New York as part of the battle against coronavirus. The traveling healthcare executive lives in Clayton with her husband and dog.

Credit: Submitted

Credit: Submitted

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