'I couldn't sit back and watch another person die from this': Upstate N.Y. nurses volunteer in NYC coronavirus fight

Health care workers from upstate New York hospitals responded to calls for volunteers to help overwhelmed New York City-area hospitals at the U.S. epicenter of the coronavirus. These medical professionals from Cayuga Health in Ithaca and SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse share what they’ve experienced and seen working on the frontlines.

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

SIERRA MEADS: And I couldn't sit back and watch another person, you know, die from this, without-- without being on the front lines to help.

LAURA STAUBES: It's also hard to discuss with family the what ifs, if you don't come back.

[SIRENS BLARING]

[CAR HORNS HONKING]

LOUANNE GIANGRECO: I'm leading a New York City humanitarian deployment trip here, to be able to help in the COVID crisis.

ANDREW CUOMO: If you don't have a health care crisis in your community, please come help us in New York now.

LOUANNE GIANGRECO: So we put out a request to our staff in Ithaca. It was a voluntary request to see if there would be interest to join our humanitarian trip. And within about a 48 hours, we had over 100 people who are interested in coming down to New York. We were so warmed by the response that we received from the Ithica community in regards to our trip.

So we brought over 50 health care professionals here to New York. And we're working with New York Presbyterian, Weill Cornell. So we estimate that we'll be here until about May 7, so we wanted to have a 30-day deployment.

LAURA STAUBES: We got a day or two of-- of orientation. And it was quick orientation, but I dare say it was much more than any of these NYPD nurses got when they first jumped into this. And at least we have people coming to us who already know a little bit about it, anyway. I can't imagine what it was like going in blind.

My wife-- she knew that I was going to choose this because, as she says, that's-- that's just who I am. She was very proud of me, but also felt like she was sending me to my death. And that's hard to hear.

KANSAS UNDERWOOD: I have a family back home that-- I have a really amazing husband, who has been able to keep our girls, who are eight and six, entertained, and has been an amazing support person. The other really amazing opportunity I've had is that I also have a 21-year-old son who was able to come on the trip with me and provide nursing support. So to be able to watch him grow in this environment and take such genuine emotions and experience away from this and be a part of that, is also really near and dear to my heart.

SIERRA MEADS: As far as what I've seen here, I've been very, very surprised with the patients I've seen. I've seen young, I've seen old, I've seen presumably healthy before this, and very sick before this. The variety of people this disease affects is unprecedented. I have never seen anything like it.

LAURA STAUBES: But other patients, I have watched crash and crash quickly, which is the case with most of the COVID patients. You don't have the time to go through all-- all of the nine or 10 steps that you might try to help stabilize somebody respiratory-wise, which is why patients end up sometimes getting intubated. Because you only have the time for the four or five steps.

SIERRA MEADS: I've had several instances where I'm really brought back to reality, where I see, you know, a patient's wedding band in a-- in a Ziploc bag on their white board. And I'm like, this is someone's spouse, their partner, their-- their loved one. And how-- how can this happen?

[CHEERING]

JESSICA FALGIATANO: It felt like for a long time-- several weeks we've been preparing for this, like, onslaught of COVID patients. And, luckily, our area areas and one that has been devastated, like Stony Brook has. I had a quick conversation with my husband. I asked him to ask our children, because I was working that day, if-- what they felt, and if it was OK with them and they gave me the go ahead. So I jumped on it.

[CHEERING]

I will say that everybody has been so gracious. And all the staff here are so grateful that we're here to help. I was anticipating being busy, but I was not quite anticipating the way it is. Busy was kind of an understatement. The assignments that the nurses had were nothing that you would get on a normal basis. There just wasn't enough staff.

I mean, they had their regular medical ICU, and then they had-- which is where I'm located. And then they have four or five other makeshift MICUs, just because they had so many patients. There is no visitors allowed, just like as in most facilities in the United States right now. And so what they do any time a patient is discharged, a COVID patient is discharged, they play, like, a little snippet of "Here Comes the Sun" on the loud speaker. And so throughout the day, you end up kind of hearing the whole entire song.

[MUSIC - THE BEATLES, "HERE COMES THE SUN"]

(SINGING) It's all right.

TAYLOR BUTLER: Nurses are here to provide more than physical support. We're here to provide each patient with love, and support, and gentle reminders about how much we care. And I hope that the people sitting at home know that their loved ones are being cared for. And they're loved by the staff here at the hospital. We will be there to hold their hands through the toughest of times, until you guys are able to hold them again.

SIERRA MEADS: What I want to assure you, as nurses, is that we're doing our absolute best. We're holding their hand whenever we can. We are talking and giving them our love with-- with each time we go in the room, with each gesture we-- we make. And we are fighting for them. We're fighting for you.

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