In a job where the sick and dying are all around you, and where your own health is potentially at risk every minute of every shift, there are going to be distressing and heartbreaking moments.
For Shana Hudson, the worst of them is the phone call, the one COVID-19 patients have been making to their families just before they’re placed on a ventilator.
“They’re given the phone to tell their families goodbye at that point before we have to intubate them,” she said. “The survival rate on the breathing tube … 80 to 85 percent of the patients don’t survive on the breathing tube. It’s very morbid, very morbid.”
Hudson, a University of Florida soccer player from 2004 to 2007, is at the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, volunteered to work a four-week stint as a nurse in the ICU of a Manhattan hospital.
“It’s been a challenge, for sure,” she said. “When I first got here I was kind of just shocked in a sense. I was pretty numb to everything. Now, as I’m adapting, things are starting to sink in a little bit more.
“Just the emotional side of it, adapting, seeing these families break, it’s been very hard for me, mentally.”
Hudson, a nurse anesthetist who lives in Tampa, is near the end of her third week, working 12-hour days with COVID-19 patients in what has become a five-floor ICU at a hospital in the middle of the city.
Hudson, 33, recently earned her master’s degree from the University of South Florida and was set to take a job as a nurse anesthetist in Tampa in mid-March. When her start date was postponed due to the virus outbreak, she knew what she had to do.
“New York is where I needed to be,” she said. “These nurses were tripled or quadrupled with patients, which is extremely unsafe. A lot of these nurses were getting sick, doctors were getting sick, so the care was going down in a lot of ways.
“Nurses were drowning. They couldn’t keep up with the demand for how many patients they had coming in. It’s where I needed to be to at least help with the crisis."
Hudson is not the only former UF athlete on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Erron Kinney, who played tight end for Steve Spurrier from 1996 to 1999, is the Fire Chief in Norfolk, Mass., while Lindsay Thompson, a teammate with Hudson on the UF soccer team, is a physician’s assistant in Austin, Texas, where she is administering COVID-19 tests and making urgent care house calls.
Thompson has already won a personal battle against the virus, beating it after being one of the first in Austin to contract it in March.
“I was just very lucky,” she said. “I didn’t experience any shortness of breath. My symptoms lasted probably about six days.”
Thompson has not had a chance to talk to Hudson about her experiences at the epicenter of the disease.
"I can’t imagine being right there in New York with everything going on,” Thompson said. "She’s so brave to do that."
Hudson arrived in New York three weeks ago, when the virus was still raging toward its peak.
“It was pretty much right when the crisis was the worst up here,” she said. “Basically, as soon as I got here we had a fast track one-day orientation and then were off and running.
“These patients are extremely, extremely sick. You don’t have families there at the bedside. These patients are on breathing tubes, on multiple different drips to control and manage their blood pressure.
“A lot of these patients that are intubated don’t end up surviving. Everyone is still searching to find a cure of containing this virus. The amount of spread happened so rapidly, they can’t keep up with it.”
Hudson is staying in a hotel about a half-mile from the hospital. She walks to and from work every day. On her walks home, following an exhausting shift, she often worries about her own health.
“Wearing the mask for 12 hours straight, it’s hard to breathe in them. It’s extremely hot,” she said. “When I leave the hospital, my throat feels sore and I’m questioning, ‘Do I have COVID-19, am I getting a sore throat, am I getting a fever?’ My body aches after being on my feet all day. You’re thinking, ‘Am I getting sick?’
“When you’re in the middle of the worst of it, it’s hard to think that we’re not contracting this virus. I just do my best to stay protected. Wash my hands constantly, minimize the time we’re going into the rooms.”
In the three weeks she’s been in New York, Hudson has seen a gradual change for the better. The spread of the virus has started to level off.
“Our admission rates have gone down in the last couple of days,” she said. “We’re not seeing as many patients come in. Our staffing ratios are a lot better. It’s kind of slowed down in the last couple of days. We’re starting to see a little more relief.
“Social distancing is having a great effect. It took us a long time to get to this position we’re in with the pandemic. Social distancing is working and we need to respect that. Eventually we’re going to get the economy up and going. In the meantime, we need to stay home.”
Hudson, of course, is not staying home. She’s staying on the front line. So are Thompson and Kinney.
Thompson beat back the virus in March and now is attacking it on two fronts. She’s conducting testing for the disease and going to the homes of the sick to provide urgent care. She’s also warning others, especially young people, that this disease needs to be taken seriously.
"While I had it, I wasn’t afraid or really thinking that could happen to me,” she said. “But since then, we’ve just learned so much more about it that, yeah, I feel extremely lucky. It feels kind of surreal to be like, ‘Wow, I survived a pretty deadly virus.’ People my age all over the world are dying from this, and I do feel lucky.”
Kinney views it pretty much the same way in Norfolk, Mass., where he oversees a department of 18 first responders.
He considers them, and he wants to keep them and their families safe, while the department continues to execute its role in trying to contain the virus.
He likes the analogy that fighting the virus is like fighting a fire, and his staff must protect themselves with the right gear and protocol just as carefully as they would for a fire.
“It’s the same thing. We respond to our medical calls with everybody wearing all the PPE they need to wear — gloves, masks, eye protection, all of that. My people are like family, and sometimes I feel this overwhelming stress. I take that responsibility very seriously.”
Kinney is taking a safety-first approach to the virus. Not just when his firefighters are responding to COVID-19 cases on the road, but also when they’re back at the station.
The station is disinfected twice a day and ambulances are disinfected after each response. Visitors are screened and workers screen themselves twice a day and wear a mask at all times.
“We’re just trying to stay on top of it,” he said. “It feels like we’re trying to hit a target that keeps moving. That’s the most challenging part.”