Trading the calm of Cumberland for the chaos of pandemic’s epicenter
Editor’s note: This is the first in an ongoing series of stories profiling Buffy Riley and her three weeks working as a nurse in the center of America’s coronavirus outbreak. See below for links to the subsequent stories in the series.
Elizabeth “Buffy” Riley has read the headlines and viewed the news accounts of overworked medical personnel in New York hospitals being exposed to the deadly coronavirus as they work frantically to treat those hospitalized by the illness.
She has watched footage of weary nurses and other medical staff slumped in exhaustion, seen them resting heads on tables as they try for a few minutes of sleep amid extra-long work shifts day after day.
She is aware of the climbing death toll because of coronavirus in America’s largest city, a figure that reached 2,473 on Friday. She has heard about refrigerated semi-truck trailers in New York being used as portable mortuaries, a visible sign that more are dying.
Riley, a 62-year-old registered nurse who works at Cumberland Memorial Hospital in northwest Wisconsin, is afraid of those daunting facts and more related to the coronavirus pandemic that has gripped the world in recent months and is responsible for more than 54,000 deaths globally and at least 6,000 in the U.S.
But those same harsh factors are exactly why Riley feels compelled to head to New York, the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis in this country.
“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t scared,” Riley said Thursday on her way to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, where she would depart for New York. “There is no doubt I am afraid. But I feel like this is something I can do to help.”
Riley is among nurses and other medical personnel from across the U.S. who are heading to New York to help overwhelmed medical staff there treat those hospitalized because of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. On Monday New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called on healthcare workers across the nation to travel to New York to help in the fight against the virus.
After learning about the dire situation in New York, Riley asked Cumberland hospital administrators if she could travel to New York to provide medical care. Because non-essential medical procedures at the hospital have been delayed to help be better prepared for any local COVID-19 outbreak, the patient load there is light. So Riley received the go-ahead.
“I have to thank this hospital for giving me this opportunity,” Riley said.
Riley plans to spend the next three weeks in New York, treating patients at an undetermined hospital. She is scheduled to begin work Friday, working 12-hour shifts seven days a week.
She said she fears contracting the virus but is perhaps more concerned about the rigorous work schedule.
“Working that amount under very difficult conditions, it’s going to be a lot,” Riley said. “Am I going to be able to keep up? I just want to do a good job, to care for these people who really need it.”
Riley’s trip to New York is being coordinated through Krucial Staffing, an Overland Park, Kan.-based staffing company. Riley and other nurses working in conjunction with the company will be paid for their time.
“We will definitely be paid,” Riley said, “but I don’t think any of us are doing this for the money.”
Riley said Krucial Staffing has assured her she will have access to personal protective equipment such as masks in New York to help prevent her from contracting COVID-19. However, hospital staff in New York and elsewhere across the U.S. have said they lack enough PPEs.
“I guess I won’t know what the situation will really be like until I see it for myself,” Riley said. “I have to have faith I can get through it.”
Later Thursday, from the New York hotel room where she is staying during her time there, Riley pondered what her first day on the job treating COVID-19 patients might have in store. She knows the job will be demanding and dangerous. She knows she will be exhausted, physically and emotionally. She knows she will see death.
But she is determined to do her part, to use the skills she has in any way she can to assist those in need, despite her trepidation. She said she will look to her family for support to get through the challenges she is sure to encounter.
“This doesn’t make me a special person,” she said. “I’m just doing what I can to help. That’s all any of us can do.”