ST. GEORGE — A few months ago, if Libbey Steed was told she would be going on an expenses-paid trip to New York City, visions of a night on Broadway and seeing Times Square would probably have crossed her mind.
That was before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, Steed and two other nurses from Dixie Regional Medical Center have been in New York City as part of two response teams from Intermountain Healthcare assisting with hospitals in New York City as they treat coronavirus patients in the nation’s worst hot spot.
There’s no sightseeing.
“This is all business. I’ve never been to New York, and I’ll go at a different time, but we’re all excited to all serve,” Steed, who works as a nurse at Dixie’s emergency room, said. “This is where our hearts are. Since we have the skills, to me it’s an honor to go.”
St. George News spoke to Steed and the two other nurses – fellow ER nurse Rylee Utley and intensive care nurse Rusty Rohr – just before they departed for New York City. Of the three, only Rohr had visited the Big Apple before for two days in 1993.
The saying that everything is big in New York also applies to the coronavirus.
According to figures from John Hopkins University, of the approximately 61,000 people who have died in the United States from COVID-19 in four months – more people than could fit in Yankee Stadium – 18,100 have been in New York City alone. For comparison, the number of deaths from pneumonia and influenza in the state of New York in a span for four years from 2014 to 2018 was 23,362, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“A lot of people heard about the need,” Rohr said. “I had an interest in going to the place in greatest need.”
The situation at Dixie Regional Medical Center has been a far cry from what the nurses see in New York. According to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, no more than nine local residents have been hospitalized for the coronavirus at once through the pandemic.
But it is still striking the difference inside the St. George hospital. Visitors, at first, were severely restricted, then outright banned with few exemptions.
“It’s weird not to see anybody in the waiting room. There’s has been a distinct transition where we used to be inviting people into the room,” Rohr said, adding that morale-wise, there’s been a positive spirit of cooperation inside Dixie Regional. “The reality is, everyone is working as a team … even the people taking out the trash. If they weren’t taking it out, where would we be?”
Rohr then joked, “Plus, the parking has been nice.”
Going to New York will have another benefit for Dixie Regional and other hospitals in the state: Doctors and nurses in New York pledge to return the favor if things get worse here. As part of the partnership, Intermountain Healthcare said the hospitals in New York will send their own nurses and doctors as they can if Utah faces its own surge with COVID-19.
The local nurses will also gain the experience of working in the toughest hot spot in the nation for the coronavirus.
“I suspect quite honestly we have far more to gain in experience,” Rohr, who previously worked at Cedar City Hospital, said. “We’ve taken care of truly sick people (here), but from a treatment perspective, we will be the ones to benefit.”
The idea of the nurses going into harm’s way evokes images of the heroic astronauts in “The Right Stuff,” getting one last goodbye from their loved ones before launching into the dangerous unknown.
The nurses expressed having support from their families, but also understandable fear for the people they love.
“My husband is very supportive and always has been. But they’re nervous. They don’t want their family going, but as a nurse, we have an obligation to,” Utley said, though in the end, their support spurs her on. “I got the impression that I need to be where I’m needed.”
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