As soon as she walked into the New York hospital room, Victoria Mejia knew something had happened. A man who had been struggling to survive the day before was gone, his bed empty.
A woman in the hallway peered through the window, banging on the door.
Mejia, a nurse anesthetist, shuffled out of her protective gown and gloves to meet her. The woman dropped to her knees in tears, saying the man had been her neighbor, a friend. Now he was one of the city’s latest COVID-19 victims.
“When, when, when?" the woman pleaded. "When did he pass?”
Reaching out with a sanitized hand, Mejia rubbed the woman’s back. She wanted to hug her, as she normally would.
Mejia is one of a small group of recent master’s graduates from the University of South Florida College of Nursing who volunteered this month to leave their Florida jobs for New York City — the epicenter for COVID-19 infections in the United States.
Every day, they see the sickest of the sick, and far more death than they had ever witnessed.
While that takes a toll, these frontline health care workers say faith and family are pulling them through. Care packages and video dates keep them going too.
What drives them most, they say, is a feeling of duty. They went to New York to serve, because that’s why they became nurses.
When Matthew Simpson told his wife, Kelly, she wasn’t surprised.
Married 10 years, the Clearwater couple has been through multiple military deployments. With each news report that compared New York’s hospitals to war zones, Kelly grew more certain her husband would want to go.
“He just always feels like he has a duty to help people, whether it’s stopping on the side of the road to push a car out of the intersection, being in the military, being a nurse — or going to New York,” she said.
Matthew Simpson, 35, is a nurse anesthetist at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater. He grew up in St. Petersburg, went to Gibbs High, then enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves. He graduated from USF with a master’s degree in nurse anesthesia in 2018, along with Mejia.
“I knew I wanted to put myself in a position where I could change lives,” he said. “I never thought it would be on this scale ... but this is why I went that route.”
Their regular work involves keeping patients sedated and comfortable during surgery. But training at USF required experience in an intensive care unit, where the frailest, most dependent patients stay — and it prepared them for what they’re seeing now.
“There are so many sick people inside these hospitals,” Simpson said. “It’s easy for people on the outside to think this isn’t as serious, but when you go in there, it’s chaotic.”
On an April 1 flight to New York, Laura McKee felt scared. Among all the unknowns, she knew one thing for sure: Her risk as a nurse had never been higher.
She graduated from USF with her master’s in nurse anesthesia in December, after working as a bedside nurse for seven years. She has seen patients in all sorts of dire situations but not this many, all at once.
At AdventHealth Pinellas in Tarpon Springs, McKee, 42, usually follows a single patient on a shift, she said. That patient becomes her “whole world.” In New York, she’s the backstop for multiple bedside nurses with multiple critical patients.
Because COVID-19 is an acute illness, a patient can rapidly decline, going from breathing on their own to not breathing at all. That’s when the USF graduates show up.
Sometimes, a patient’s heart stops beating. That happened multiple times on one of McKee’s recent shifts, and a person died.
There’s no time to process, she said, because the shift is so busy. There’s always another crisis, someone else who needs you.
“Your eyes tear up, but you can’t cry,” McKee said. “You just tell yourself, I can cry later.”
Many of the bedside nurses being assisted by the Florida group had not worked in intensive care before. They typically wouldn’t have without further training. But they’ve had to step up as patient counts grow.
Mejia’s parents, Theresa and Monte Ketchum, say they pray for her every day from their rural Hernando County home, where she grew up. They did that before but especially now.
When Mejia and her husband, David, made a video call to tell her parents that she planned to go to New York, her mom thought the couple was going to announce Mejia was pregnant. Theresa Ketchum squeezed Monte’s hand in anticipation, then her heart sank.
“We watched her grow, and she’s this young woman and all of a sudden, she looks at you and tells you a very grown-up thing,” Theresa Ketchum said. “But you hear her as your 7-year-old kid saying, 'Mommy, I’m going to New York.’”
Mejia’s mom cried and cried. The Ketchums worried about their daughter’s exposure to the virus, her mental health and safety. But they could not hold her back, Monte Ketchum said.
Mejia, a Hernando High graduate, was afraid, too. “I feel like God’s calling me to go,” she told her parents. Her mind was made up.
Monte Ketchum is filled with pride at his daughter’s bravery.
Mejia’s husband said he supported her from the start. Her passion for service is one of the reasons he married her four years ago. But it got harder to be positive when he dropped her off at Gainesville Regional Airport.
“That’s when it became real for me,” he said. “There is the risk that she could get sick and worst-case scenario, I could lose her. That’s been hard on me.”
From New York, Mejia talks to David and her parents every day. She tells them how she is staying safe, how she’s feeling. They sent her a care package with toiletries, snacks and notes from family and friends. Her dad threw in a full-face respirator.
“Your sacrifice and bravery is ADMIRABLE!” one of the cards read. “You have grown into such an awesome nurse, and now CRNA."
The letters stand for Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist.
The card ended, "You rock!”
McKee talks to her husband in Clearwater every day. She shares some of what she’s seeing, but it’s hard for people outside the medical field to relate, she said. So she writes it all down.
“I’ve had to deal with these feelings before, but never so much. Never on this level, never at this capacity.”
The USF nurse anesthetists work for Envision Physician Services, a company that staffs hospitals around the nation and has deployed 200 people in New York. A company supervisor in the city, a former military doctor, suggested they keep a journal to cope. On Easter, workers joined a coloring competition to ease tension.
Sometimes, they meet to debrief after difficult shifts. The USF group is expected to be there four to six weeks.
What they’re seeing could cause post-traumatic stress disorder, the supervisor told Mejia on her first day. He urged her and others to call their families or seek counseling to explain how the experience has affected them.
For Mejia, the hardest part is seeing young patients who are close in age to her friends and siblings. She cared for a woman in her 30s recently, and couldn’t stop picturing her sister-in-law.
Before Simpson left for New York, his wife made him promise to speak with a mental health professional if he needed the support once he got home. He typically holds in his emotions.
His passive nature has always been a shield against chaos, Kelly Simpson said. It’s what makes him a great nurse. But she worries.
A few days ago, Matthew Simpson came home to Seminole early to be there when Mack, the family’s black Labrador Retriever, had to be put down.
Before that, the couple talked every day while Simpson was in New York. When Kelly asked her husband how he was doing, he answered “fine,” then he asked about her, their two sons and Mack, who had been diagnosed with cancer.
Before the pandemic, Simpson could count on two hands how many times he had seen patients die, he said. In New York, it was “nonstop.”
Still, he’s worried more about newer nurses who haven’t built coping skills and are now bombarded with grief. “I don’t know how they’re going to move forward from this.”
For now, Simpson remains under a two-week quarantine, a step his fellow nurse anesthetists will take when they return.
Mejia will stay in an apartment in her parents’ backyard before returning to Gainesville to be with David. They installed a smart TV so she has a way to pass the time.
McKee’s husband, Paul, can’t wait to see her. They have set up weekly video dates, where they eat the same type of food and watch the same show. She does her makeup, he sits in his recliner.
It’s not the same as being together, but his pride in what she’s doing helps ease his longing for her to be home.
“It’s just like the soldiers out there, fighting for America and taking care of people,” Paul McKee said. “That’s what they’re doing, helping out the American people. They’re the soldiers right now.”
The group out of USF says they are grateful the virus hasn’t spread as rapidly in Florida. But they’re watching cautiously, hoping everyone takes it seriously.
“Someone here said to me, ‘Respect the virus,’” Laura McKee said. “And I do. I respect what it is and what it can do, because I’ve seen it.”
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