Footage of Elizabeth “Buffy” Riley and other nurses being applauded by New York City police as they departed for work as shown on the "CBS Evening News" on Wednesday.
Footage of Elizabeth “Buffy” Riley and other nurses being applauded by New York City police as they departed for work as shown on the "CBS Evening News" on Wednesday.

Back from NYC, nurse will quarantine at a friend’s cabin.

Editor’s note: This story is updated by an article HERE about Riley testing positive for COVID-19

This is the sixth 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. These links will take you to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 of the series. 

As the jet on which she was a passenger descended from the clouds Thursday afternoon toward Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Elizabeth “Buffy” Riley felt a heavy emotional weight lift suddenly.

Riley had spent the last three weeks working as a nurse in an intensive care unit at a Brooklyn hospital, treating patients critically ill with COVID-19. She was in the ICU 12 hours a day, every day, scrambling between her patients, trying as hard as she could to keep them alive. 

The 62-year-old Riley had worked as a nurse for nearly three decades, and in her early years in the profession she had treated trauma cases in an ICU before. She held the hand of her best friend as he died. 

But nothing could have prepared her for the desperate struggle or life in the ICU, in the city that in recent weeks has become the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States. As of Friday, at least 11,544 New York City residents had died from COVID-19, accounting for more than one of every five of the 51,445 U.S. deaths attributed to the illness. 

“It was patients on the verge of death all the time,” Riley said of her time in the ICU at Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Center. “And then, too often, it was death.”

Riley left her job at Cumberland Memorial Hospital on April 2 to help her nursing colleagues at New York City hospitals who were overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. Those patients were dying so fast the city couldn’t find places to store the bodies fast enough. Sometimes the deceased lay in hospital rooms where Riley and other medical personnel worked to keep others alive. 

Riley’s days consisted of rising before sunrise, catching a bus to Woodull, working exhausting 12-hour shifts with little or no break, riding the bus back to the hotel where she stayed, then sleeping in doing it again the next day, and the next. Her overnights were interrupted with nightmares of too many patients to treat in the ICU, too many to keep alive.   

So when the sprawling airport below her came into view, and then the airplane landed, Riley felt as if her worries were behind her, at least for the time being. The whirs and beeps of medical equipment, the humming ventilators, and even the deaths were behind her. 

As the nearly empty airplane touched down, she knew that in moments she would see her husband and one of her three sons who had come to welcome her home. She was back in the Midwest. She was nearly home. 

A few hours later the trio turned onto the Hayward street leading to their home. They were met by dozens of vehicles parked alongside the road, filled with friends honking horns, cheering and shaking cowbells in celebration of Riley’s return. 

“I can’t tell you what a relief it was to be back home,” Riley said Thursday evening as she arrived home. “After what I experienced the last three weeks, I’m so grateful to be back here.”

COVID-19 concerns  

Despite relief at her return, Riley faces a new reality because of COVID-19 and her time in New York. 

Instead of warm hugs with her husband and son, the trio’s greeting was relegated to a verbal greeting while keeping their distance. Riley’s husband Matt and her son Walt had driven to the airport separately but returned to Hayward in one vehicle, leaving Riley to follow them in the other. 

Traveling in different vehicles was necessary not only because of general COVID-19 social distancing concerns, but because Riley may have contracted the illness while in New York. On Sunday she began feeling ill, experiencing fatigue, gastrointestinal discomfort, muscle pain, a persistent cough and shortness of breath. 

Her conditions worsened and she was unable to work at Woodhull on Monday and Tuesday. She tried to get a COVID-19 test, she said, but was told by Krucial Staffing, the Kansas-based staffing company she had contracted with to go to New York, to return to the hospital Wednesday. Krucial Staffing did not return a call seeking comment for this story. 

Riley did, but she was told she was too sick to be there and was sent for medical assessment. She said she was told she may be able to be tested for the virus, but if she did so she would be confined to her hotel room for at least 10 days, and much longer if she tested positive.

She was near the end of her time in New York, with just one may day until she was scheduled to return home. Riley worried about remaining in New York for an extended time, waiting for a test and results. So she decided to book a flight home. To protect others at the airport and herself, she wore an N95 mask and gloves. 

After she arrived at her house, Riley couldn’t stay. Instead, Matt loaded her car with food and she drove north 18 miles to a friend’s cabin, where she will stay in quarantine for an undetermined amount of time, a means of protecting herself and others. 

On Friday afternoon Riley was tested for COVID-19 at the hospital in Hayward. Shortly before the test, she spoke confidently about her health. She is monitoring her temperature and is using a pulse oximeter to measure the amount of oxygen in her blood. 

Doctors have said people could detect COVID-19 earlier by using pulse oximeters to monitor low blood oxygen levels, a sign the illness is harming the body. So far her oxygen numbers have been encouraging, Riley said.  

“I am monitoring myself. I am going to be OK,” she said. 

‘I wanted to help others’

Riley’s efforts in New York have garnered significant interest. Her daily Facebook posts detailing her fears and struggles, and periodic joys, attracted hundreds of likes, shares and comments. Hundreds more from across Wisconsin and the nation have contacted her, sending her well wishes and prayers. Others sent her coffee, other personal gifts and medical masks, which she distributed to her fellow Woodhull nurses.

Media outlets and other organizations have reached out too. On Wednesday footage of Riley walking with her nurse colleagues from their hotel to the bus that would take them to hospitals that day as New York City police applauded appeared on the national broadcast of CBS nightly news. Her phone lit up all night with messages. 

Riley said she is uncomfortable with all the attention. She didn’t go to New York for praise, she said. She went because she felt compelled to help those in need. 

“I’m no hero,” she said. “I just wanted to help others in a way that I could.”

Riley’s friends said they admire her risking her health to travel to New York to help people in need. They said they worry about her possibly having been infected by COVID-19.

“I really admire her for what she has done,” said Eau Claire resident Jon Thorpe, a longtime friend of Riley’s, said of her work in New York. “She helps people. That is what she does.” 

Riley continued to garner attention on Friday, when she said she received a call from Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers. 

“That is pretty cool,” an appreciative Riley said. “I’m a bit overwhelmed by it all.”

Riley expressed frustration with Friday’s protest at the state Capitol in Madison and other similar events staged by people seeking to lift stay-at-home regulations intended to slow the spread of COVID-19. Wisconsin citizens and those elsewhere must realize that public gatherings while cases of the virus continue to climb will only lead to more infections and more deaths. 

“After what I saw in New York, it makes me so, so angry to see these protests and people asking for no more regulations,” she said. “If those people who want that experienced what I did in the ICU, they would change their minds in a hurry.”

For now Riley is left to wait for her test results. They likely won’t be available for a week,, she said. As she waits to learn whether she has COVID-19, Riley staves off worry by communicating with family and friends. 

Her new, scenic surroundings also help her maintain a positive attitude, she said. The cabin is along a small lake. Late Thursday she fell asleep listening to the springtime chorus of peeper frogs. On Friday morning she viewed a look on the lake outside her temporary home.

“I’m not listening to beeps and alarms. I’m not worried about running as fast as I can to treat patients,” Riley said as she gazed at the lake. “I’m not worried about people dying, and that makes it all better.”