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North Dakota nurse serves on pandemic's front lines in New York City

North Dakota nurse serves on pandemic's front lines in New York City

North Dakota-based traveling nurse Victoria Gregg is used to unfamiliar hospitals, each with their own unique communities and medical challenges.

But since April 23, she’s been taking care of patients in especially strange terrain: St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, which has treated hundreds of COVID-19 patients since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis in New York City.

Gregg, 62, who owns a home in Bottineau but also rents a house in Bismarck, has been a traveling nurse for the past nine years, taking short-term contracts at understaffed hospitals. Before nursing, she worked as a paramedic, most memorably on the Route 66 night shift in Albuquerque, N.M. 

"I’ve tried to have permanent jobs before, but I tend to have itchy feet," she said. 

Gregg had always wanted to try a stint in a New York City emergency room, but the coronavirus pandemic sped up her timeline.

In mid-April, at the time Gregg decided to look for a position, New York was experiencing its largest daily death tolls, hovering around 500 per day, according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. By the time she arrived on April 23, the city had lost an estimated 15,000 people to the virus, according to agency data.

“I would listen to the news every morning on Gov. (Andrew) Cuomo and what was going on there, and I wanted to come and be a part of that and help, and so in doing that, I found the door was wide open,” Gregg said.

From the beginning, this experience hasn’t been like any of her previous nursing contracts.

The emergency room manager who interviewed her was home sick with the virus himself. Over the phone, he described horrendous scenes at St. Barnabas, with multiple patients streaming into the ER, dying of heart failure due to COVID-19 before any help could arrive from the overworked staff. Patient-to-nurse ratios had jumped from 6-to-1 to 12-to-1. 

“My two daughters were like, “No. No, don’t do that.’ But my father, my 84-year-old father, understood completely,” Gregg said of her family’s reaction to her departure. “He said ‘Oh I get it.’ He said all of him, his cousins and brothers were all in the war. They were all military people. And while I’m not military, it felt much like that. I felt drawn to it."

Daily grind

By the time Gregg arrived in the Bronx, things had become slightly more organized for the strained hospital.

Multiple sections of the building have been co-opted into coronavirus intensive care units, housing patients on ventilators. Part of the ER where Gregg works is cordoned off for patients who come in with suspected or confirmed COVID-19.

Each day, Gregg takes a Lyft ride to the hospital from her hotel, which Hilton has provided for free since she is an emergency worker. She gets there early to partake in one of the three provided meals of the day. Before work starts, she stands in line to receive her daily personal protective equipment. This includes an N95 mask, surgical gown and face shield.

In normal circumstances, these items would be swapped out each time a nurse saw a new patient, but because of the pandemic’s tightening grip on resources, Gregg wears the same attire all day.

At the end of their shifts, nurses pack their PPE in a paper bag in case there isn’t any equipment the next day. Gregg hasn’t had to resort to reusing her bag yet.

Comorbidity in the Bronx

The Bronx has been hit particularly hard by COVID-19 due to its urban density and compounding factors, according to Gregg.

“It’s just an area with poverty, lack of health care, marginalized folks -- you know they’re really a target of COVID,” she said.

The ER, already overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases, often is disrupted by combative patients with a history of drug use, mental health issues or both, Gregg said. Even with the city on virtual lockdown, the ER still has to deal with day-to-day traumas such as stabbings, she said. 

The hospital also is not kept as clean as most places she’s worked, but Gregg said low resources are to blame, not the staff, who she says are “used to working really, really hard.”

Gregg said she was asked by a nurse working in a wealthier section of the city if St. Barnabas was having overstaffing issues with all of the crisis relief workers who had come in. It had been a concern at the other nurse’s hospital, which Gregg found amazing.

“I don’t think a lot of people are chomping at the bit to come to the Bronx,” she said. “It’s an underserved area. And like I said, they probably don’t have the huge spending capacity to get more help there.”

Gregg said she has enjoyed learning about the community.

Despite its poverty and hardship, “They have amazing culture and fabulous history,” she said, noting that the area’s food diversity and quality is the pride of many local nurses.

The next adventure

Gregg’s contract will be up on June 11, and she looks forward to returning to North Dakota, “to my garden, to my Brittany Spaniel who’s in hunting school right now, to the beautiful sunsets and sunrises there and the long days.”

If she could impart one thing about the virus to her fellow North Dakotans, Gregg said it would be to take its danger seriously.

“It’s rampant in New York and it’s lethal in New York. So don’t think it’s not. Because it is. It absolutely is,” she said. “Young people are dying as well as the elderly or people with comorbidities or asthma and things like that.”

She said that while she will be busy at home this summer in continuing a project to create a Bismarck group home for her adult son with disabilities, she hasn’t ruled out going to help out in another COVID-19 hot spot in the fall, depending on how the pandemic has progressed.

“The only places I go now are places that really need me, because for travel nursing to be done its best, it has to be an adventure,” she said.

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