Alexandra Chang goes where she’s needed. She’s a travel nurse. That’s the job.
In the past seven years, the 31-year-old Tampa resident has flown to far-flung places like Thailand and a war trauma hospital in Afghanistan.
But even the toughest assignments didn’t prepare her for the five months she worked at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, in an intensive care unit for coronavirus patients. The virus was spreading rapidly through New York City in the summer of 2020, and Chang said there were times when they were running out of beds and the hospital risked being overwhelmed.
“You’re used to most of your patients surviving, but COVID was not like that,” she said. “It was multiple codes every shift. It seemed like every 40 minutes to an hour, someone was dying.”
She heard from friends in other hospitals about the help they got, from Indian and French nurses who came to treat American patients.
So in May, when she read on Facebook that another travel nurse was looking for volunteers to go to India and Nepal to alleviate the escalating COVID-19 crisis, Chang said she had to raise her hand.
Then she learned there was no international relief agency organizing a medical mission. The nurses are making their own arrangements.
They haven’t been able to leave yet. But they’re determined to help.
“None of us have ever done this before; it’s a lot more than anyone expected,” Chang said of arranging a trip like this. “Now we’ve gotten so far, I don’t think anyone wants to give up.”
In just two months, the group known as American Nurses on a Mission has swollen to roughly 40 members, including at least three from Tampa Bay.
The nurses have had to learn how to deal with government and health officials in both countries and wade through bureaucratic regulations to obtain expedited visas. Some have negotiated with medical suppliers to arrange the shipping of personal protective equipment, antibiotics and other supplies ahead of their departure.
They set themselves up as a nonprofit to accept tax-deductible donations. They launched a website weareanom.org and hope to raise money to cover costs the nurses have paid out of pocket, such as for malaria medication and vaccinations for yellow fever, cholera, rabies and hepatitis.
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None of the nurses expect to be paid during the planned month-long trip.
They don’t even know when they will be cleared to fly.
The group had planned to go to India first, then shifted gears when it appeared Nepal might provide visas sooner. They had tentative plans to meet in New York City and depart on Monday, but those were shelved this week when visas were delayed again.
It would help, Chang said, if Nepal declared a state of emergency.
Bradenton nurse Jen Evans, 35, volunteered to travel with the group in part because of her experiences tending to coronavirus patients at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. She admitted to trepidation about heading into another COVID-19 crisis, especially since they will be in countries with fewer medical facilities and equipment.
“I know what it was like in New York, and it will probably be 100 times worse there,” Evans said. “I have to go, just knowing I can ease some of the suffering.”
Chang, now an associate director of the new group, is aware of the challenges she and her colleagues will face amid the grave conditions in both countries.
India reported more than 134,000 COVID-19 infections and almost 2,900 deaths just on Thursday. It has recorded more than 28.5 million cases, and the nation’s health care system is at risk of collapse due to a dire shortage of beds and lifesaving supplies, including oxygen, according to multiple reports.
India has the second-largest population on the planet, but only 3.2 percent of the country’s 1.3 billion people are fully vaccinated, according to the New York Times’ vaccination tracker.
Experts suspect that migrant workers crossing from India have spread infections into neighboring Nepal, according to a report in the New York Times. The positivity test rate in the Himalayan country is an alarming 40 percent. Among its population of 28 million, more than 500,000 cases have been recorded.
Their mission is to do more than just help patients with COVID-19, Chang said. They also want to be there for fellow health care workers, who are risking their lives to deal with the crisis.
“I know what it’s like to be overwhelmed and understaffed and watch your patients die,” she said.
Chang grew up in the New York City borough of Queens lives with her partner in the Westshore area. Sometimes, she says, her mother questions why she takes jobs in other countries when there are so many needs in the United States.
To Chang, there’s no difference between humanitarian work here or on the other side of the world.
“I think, what am I doing with this life? What kind of footprint am I leaving behind?”
Dade City nurse Jamie Koshko, 36, grew up on the other side of Pasco County in New Port Richey.
She has traveled across the country, treating COVID-19 patients in several states, but she has never worked abroad. Her only overseas trip was a family vacation to Italy — when she was 14.
But when Koshko saw the plea for nurses on Facebook, she responded.
“It spoke to me,” she said. “This is something I’ve been wanting for a long, long time. I want to make a difference, to use my skills for the greater good.”
Koshko’s husband, Jeff Perro, will take care of their 15-month old son, Elliott, and their American bulldog mix, Lucy, while she is gone. She calls Perro her biggest supporter.
The group meets on Zoom nearly every evening at 8 to discuss progress and divvy up tasks. Among the recent requests: Does anyone know someone who can put together a video presentation for embassy staff? Is anyone free to fly to Atlanta to visit the Indian consulate?
Koshko volunteered for the Atlanta trip, flying there Thursday and showing consulate officials a letter from a doctor in an Indian hospital stating he would welcome their help.
The nurses don’t know what hospitals or cities they’ll end up in once whey arrive. Koshko expects they’ll be assigned to work in makeshift hospitals, teach local nurses and administer vaccines.
They haven’t even left the country yet, but Koshko said it’s been amazing to watch the nurses pull together to plan and arrange this trip.
“We don’t know each other, but we all had the same idea in mind,” she said. “They came over to help us; we feel it’s our turn to go over there and lend a hand to our medical brothers and sisters.”