Nurses Taryn Hernandez and Trista Coffey felt a calling.
They weren’t getting much work at Newton Medical Center, where they’re employed.
"We were sitting at home, not working at all, and we were just thinking, ‘We’re nurses. There’s cities out there struggling right now and we’re not doing anything,’ " Hernandez said. " ‘How can we help?’ "
Hernandez made contact with a former co-worker who arranges for nurses to travel to different parts of the country where they are needed.
"Within a week we were on a plane and on our way to Detroit," Hernandez said.
Both nurses used the same word to describe their experience: "eye-opening."
"I’d never seen so many sick people all at the same time," Hernandez said. "That first week I was there, it was pretty sad. Lots of death, and I think they were still on that wave of so many sick people."
Coffey said, "I do feel like at the beginning of my time there, there was a lot of sadness. More people, you felt, were not overcoming the illness."
They worked in Detroit suburban hospitals, putting in 12- to 14-hour shifts, working in intensive care units and emergency rooms that had been made to accommodate COVID-19 patients.
"Most all the people in the hospital when we first got there were diagnosed with COVID," Coffey said. "It was busy, it was different. It was go, go, go."
Hernandez and Coffey both described the emotional grueling experience of caring for sick patients on the edge of life.
"I saw firsthand how bad it can get when it gets out of control," Hernandez said. "We have no idea how good we have it right now in Kansas. People just don’t understand how bad it can get."
Coffey said, "As nurses we are the ones that are providing the care. We’re that patient’s advocate. You bond with some of those people, definitely. Sometimes you have really long days and certain events of that day stay in your heart and you think of those later."
Flattening of the curve
Both nurses saw patients die, but by the end of their month in the Detroit area, more were recovering and being discharged from the hospital. Coffey recalled one patient who had been in the hospital for several weeks. When he had recovered and was being wheeled out, a line of nurses stood and applauded.
"It was humbling knowing we helped him get to that point," she said. "We saw something good at the end of all the work that was done, so that was really kind of neat."
There are people who refuse to wear masks in public and who want their states to immediately open everything back up, but Hernandez said those people "have not seen any fraction of what this disease causes."
"I feel like the disease is unpredictable sometimes,"she said. "It affects each person differently, and the effects that I saw when I was in Detroit were severe and scary, so it’s really important to just wash your hands, maintain your space and wear your dang mask."
She said the reason the curve is flattening is because places were closed.
Coffey said wearing a mask is inconvenient, "but we don’t know a whole lot about this virus, so we’re taking all these precautions to protect you and your friends, neighbors, everybody. I had to wear several masks with face shields for 12 hours. I know it’s inconvenient, but truly I do believe that PPE (personal protective equipment) and good hand hygiene does work."
Gina Wallace, Hernandez’s mother, recalled how her daughter talked about going into health care from a young age. When Wallace became a nurse, she arranged for her daughter to work as a CNA.
"I figured she would change her mind real fast once she realized how incredibly hard and physically demanding that job can be," Wallace said. "I think it inspired her instead."
Coffey said, "I feel like I was led to do this. This is what I'm supposed to do, to serve people. I truly have a passion for that."
She said she felt called to help other nurses in need.
"As a nurse, you want to help your fellow nurses, and those nurses — they were tired, they were exhausted. I just wanted to be there to help.
"I think it’s been a very positive experience just being able to be on those patients’ health journeys."