Life on the Front: Valdosta nurse treats virus in NYC

2020-04-19 | The Valdosta Daily Times

April 19-- Apr. 19--VALDOSTA -- It was April 3, the first day of a statewide mandatory shelter-in-place order in Georgia.

While residents prepared to stay in their homes, Ashli Scruggs stepped onto a plane for New York City.

Scruggs, a Valdosta nurse practitioner for The Howard Center for Women's Health, joined at least a thousand other medical professionals to aid New York public hospitals and the spread of COVID-19. She's still in NYC.

Purpose in a Pandemic

The Clark Central Hotel, sitting between Times Square and Central Park, is Scruggs' new home for 21 days. She said a Valdosta physician assistant is also in NYC assisting.

On the frontline, there are no days off for her; however, there are 12-hour shifts and for which she waits an hour before and after her shift.

"It is really bad up here," she said. "We're working in public hospitals, so the private hospitals are essentially kicking out patients that are positive and putting them in public hospitals that are flooded with it. That's where they brought in the deployments of workers like myself to come help. It's very emotional. It's very bad."

While she holds onto a fear of the virus, she recalls being excited to embark on what she believes is her mission in New York. She calls the state "ground zero."

Though a sense of anxiety overcomes her being alone in another state, she confirmed she will not be turning away and will fulfill her mission instead.

In her 10-and-a-half years of being in the medical field, nine of which she spent as an emergency room travel nurse, she has never worked during a pandemic.

Initially working in New York public hospitals, she is now considered a hospitalist at a recovery center stationed at Roosevelt Island Medical Center until April 25. She is in charge of admissions.

Scruggs relies on her training and background though she finds herself at times wondering if she's providing correct assistance as COVID-19 knowledge and procedures are ever-changing.

Preparing for the Virus

After being greeted with gratitude and words of thanks upon her arrival, she said her first day at work was overwhelming.

"All of us fear that we're not equipped for the lifesaving measures that we have to do here because there's a lot of people dying," she said. "(There's) mental strain and fear that I won't do something right, but for the most part, we're here to just get in and help."

Scruggs is ready to provide aid and utilizes the "trauma face" she's developed to get through her days; in her words, there's no nonsense and no playing.

"You just get in the zone and do what you gotta do and you get out, and that's constant here," she said. "There's no break."

Scruggs continues to keep herself safe from the virus through personal protective equipment.

Some PPE items accompanied her during the trip from Valdosta while some items are given to her through the NYC hospitals.

A decontamination station was set up in her hotel room which includes Ziploc bags, Clorox items and hand sanitizer.

Upon completing a shift and returning to the hotel, she undresses and puts everything in its place. She heads to the shower before entering the rest of her room.

Her mask goes into a Ziploc bag and is sprayed with Clorox to hinder any contaminants from flowing throughout the room.

NYC medical staff wear splash masks, gowns and masks covering the N95 mask for one shift. The N95 is good for five days before expiration.

New York hospitals are not reusing gowns or PPE, Scruggs said. If hospitals do not have enough PPE for staff, the workers go back to the hotel.

New Normal

In New York, the public hospitals have gotten makeovers.

Some of them have areas operating as clinics while others are completely treating COVID-19 positive patients. Some still have working medical surgical floors where people are not ventilated, Scruggs said.

Some hospitals have transformed into solely intensive care units and perform emergency room procedures, Scruggs said, adding all floors at some of them are now ICUs with ventilated patients.

Certain areas in New York that are densely populated and are poverty stricken with multiple people living in one home have hospitals that are being wholly converted into these ICUs, she said.

"It's chaotic here," she said.

She said NYC and Valdosta are separated by numbers. In Valdosta, she said she believes the amount of cases is not "raging" whereas the inner workings of hospitals in NYC, such as surgical floors and rehabilitation areas, have had to shut down due to the amount of COVID-19 patients.

"Here, they're loaded top to bottom with infected patients so it is chaos," Scruggs said. " ... You can't step anywhere without bumping into a bed with a patient on it, down the hallway, everything."

Her self-proclaimed trauma face keeps her focused in this instance.

"It's overwhelming, but I put on that trauma face and do what I can because there's no time for me to step back and take it all in," she said. "I have to work."

The NYC patients dying of COVID-19 have been at least 60 years old, an age demographic that is more susceptible than others, Scruggs said.

Family members have been restricted from visiting, and nurses are the ones notifying them of the loss of their loved ones.

Scruggs has not made contact with any family members but said her patients dying causes a mental strain.

"The fact that you're doing physical labor, you're losing sleep, you're trying to stay healthy and you don't know if what you're doing is right, but you're doing everything you can," she said.

COVID-19 has been deemed the "novel coronavirus" meaning it's a new virus. Treating it has become difficult.

"There are so many differing opinions that I just want to do what's right," Scruggs said. "I want to order the right things. I want to treat my patients the correct way, but there's so many different studies and different opinions on what to do."

She has lost multiple patients and said health care workers are having a tough time coping.

Code blue is where health care workers perform compressions in an attempt to keep a patient alive whenever that person's heart or breathing stops, Scruggs said.

"We're not allowed to do that anymore, so we just wait for them to pass and call time of death and then move the body out, and that's a lot of what we're doing, which is very strenuous on a lot of people," she said.

"(It's) very taxing on the mind and the heart and your faith, but that's why we're all leaning on each other so hard right now to try to get through this. It's difficult, but it is something that is part of a pandemic and expected. I'm not trying to make light of the situation, but being strong-minded during all of this is definitely beneficial."

Foundation on the Frontline

The medical staff in her hotel have decided to care for one another, be one another's support system.

During her first week in NYC, she was on an elevator with a female medical worker who'd just completed a shift. Scruggs said the woman was crying.

Scruggs said she stopped the elevator, allowed the woman to cry and she let the woman tell her about her bad day.

Scruggs said she may not have been able to emotionally handle that if someone had not supported her earlier in the day.

"Even the smallest thing can help get us through this time here," she said.

The camaraderie among the health professionals at Scruggs' hotel is a hint of positivity in a period of negativity.

They band together ensuring others are fed and have necessities. Scruggs helps with laundry.

"We're here to support each other, and it's been wonderful here as far as the hotel and meeting people from all over the country," she said.

The massive group consists of registered nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and respiratory therapists -- a diverse bunch that came together for the "greater good," she said.

"That in itself makes every bit of this worth it," she said.

Unlike in the emergency room where some nights may typically be quiet before the spread of COVID-19, Scruggs said the hospitals are chaotic and busy daily.

Though she said she thrives in chaos, she leans on her peers when necessary.

"It's still like you're constantly drowning, but you've got your other health care providers," she said. "Those are my people, and that's what we're here for, to help each other and to help the people. Sense of humanity, if you will."

Scruggs also sees positive light in how people spend more time outside exercising during off-hours.

Glimpse of Hope

The future of recovery for New York appears to be coming. Scruggs said the state is starting to see less positive cases and is nearing a decline in numbers.

"It's still crazy, but I do feel like things are getting better," she said.

Scruggs has begun working the night shift at Roosevelt Island Medical Center, a building she said had been shut down since Hurricane Sandy. It's been reopened to hold people who are positive with COVID-19 but do not require ICU care.

"They are opening up wings for people that are beginning to recover but can't quite go home yet," she said. "Things are on the mend slowly but surely."

She said the center admitted hundreds of recovering patients in 24 hours.

She reminds residents that there are people with a willingness to help. She encourages people to stay home, love their family from a distance, keep their faith and have a positive outlook.

Support Back Home

With a fiancé and two dogs awaiting her return in Valdosta, Scruggs said she misses her family. She is scheduled to fly home April 25.

She speaks to family members daily but tries minimizing contact to keep them from getting into a routine of talking to her in case she has a bad shift and is unable to talk.

"I don't want them to worry too much," she said.

She said she is right where she is supposed to be, having felt an attraction to help face the crisis weeks before leaving for New York.

"You definitely live life to the fullest, but I guess at a six-foot distance, right now," she said.

Scruggs thanks the Howard Center for understanding her mission, family members and people who've sent gifts such as wipes and hand sanitizer.

"If it weren't for that support and love and everybody's prayers, we wouldn't have been able to make it," she said.

Though she's working long hours daily to aid patients in fighting the novel coronavirus, Scruggs denies being a hero.

"I do what I can," she said.