Intermountain Healthcare nurses share lessons from volunteer trip to New York

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Rylee Utley stands outside the Bohlsen Family Emergency Department at Southside Hospital in New York in April. Utley along with other Intermountain Healthcare nurses traveled to New York to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic. (Rylee Utley)

Filling a need in New York

Neither Dan Crump nor Rylee Utley had ever been to New York before April 14. Instead of the normal tourist spots and a bustling city that most people see during their first trip to the Big Apple, Crump and Utley were met with empty, silent streets and packed hospitals.

“Going out to New York was pretty eye-opening,” Crump said. “It just blew my mind walking up and down the street. Hardly anyone was on the sidewalks. You could walk down the middle of the road and not have to worry about any cars coming your way.”

Utley had a similar experience. “It’s like a whole different world over in New York,” Utley said. “Just patients stacked on top of each other, basically. Beds next to each other, no curtains, no walls.”

Crump and Utley were a part of a COVID-19 response team of 50 caregivers from Intermountain Healthcare that traveled to the city as part of a two-week volunteer trip to aid New York nurses. Crump and Utley’s team was one of two teams Intermountain sent to New York. Each team was made up of physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, nurses, respiratory therapists and other caregivers.

“It was a lot to take in, even with what we’re used to as nurses and health care workers,” Utley said. “It’s a whole different type of nursing. I had one of the doctors I worked with describe it as, ‘This is as close to wartime nursing will probably get without being in war.’ And I think that’s true.”

BYU alumnus Crump has worked as a nurse for four years, three of those in a respiratory ICU in Murray. “I almost felt obligated to go out to New York to help out,” he said. “I felt qualified to go work in a COVID ICU.”

The hardest part for him was leaving behind his pregnant wife and two kids.

Utley, who has been a nurse for three years and recently started working at Dixie Regional Hospital, had also been wanting to go help in New York for a while when she got an email from Intermountain that said the company was taking applications to send caregivers to New York.

There were just four days between when she applied and when she flew out of St. George “It was a very rapid process,” Utley said. “It was basically pack your bags and get ready to go.”

On the front lines

Utley remembers having a lot of anxiety on the flight out to New York and not knowing what to expect once they landed.

“It became more and more real every mile we got closer on the plane,” she said.

Utley went through an 8-hour training once she landed and the next day she was off to her assigned hospital. There she trained with another nurse for about four hours before she was on her own. “I was very grateful for my background in the ER because it would have been a very hard adjustment,” she said. During her two weeks there, she worked 11 shifts: two in the ICU and nine in the ER. She said 90-95% of the patients she worked with had COVID-19.

Because she had prepared for the worst possible situation, Utley said there weren’t any surprises when she arrived in New York. But that didn’t lessen the emotional toll of the reality there.

“You have patients die as a nurse and you’re kind of used to that. But this was different. It definitely doesn’t sit the same. You didn’t go home with the same emotions that you’d go home like on a normal day,” she said.

Crump wasn’t surprised by what he saw either. The work was a lot more busy than what he was used to, with each nurse being responsible for three to four patients — double the amount that most ICU nurses usually have.

“You’re constantly hoping that while you’re in one of your patient room that your other two or three patients were okay, he said. “It’s kind of kind of nerve-wracking and just very high-stress.”

One of the most stressful moments of Crump’s two weeks in New York was when he was performing compressions on a COVID-19 patient.

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt more uncomfortable as a nurse before,” Crump said. “Just because I was concerned about being exposed myself.”

One of the biggest struggles was not having patients’ families there. Health care workers at Utley’s hospital tried to help by having teams come around with Ipads to help patients FaceTime and talk with their families.

Doing what we’re meant to do

Utley remembers a specific man who she cared for in the ER. He had been laying in a bed in the hallway for a while and was really uncomfortable and miserable. Utley realized this and helped him get a room with another patient so he could have a bit of privacy. Then she found out his phone was dead and he hadn’t been able to contact his family all day. After she helped him call his family, he started calling Utley his “personal angel.”

“It wasn’t a great act that I did, but it’s gonna make a world of difference for him and his family,” Utley said. “It’s amazing what a single act can do for somebody if you have the time, if you can just take it.”

She doesn’t feel like she deserved the title of angel that man gave her or the title of hero that so many have given to health care workers in general over the past few months.

“We’re just doing what we’re meant to do: help people,” Utley said.

She said while she appreciates the praise that health care workers have been receiving and the love and treats that are coming their way, she feels like there are better ways people can help out right now.

“We still have our jobs, which means we’re still able to put food on the table for our families,” she said. “I know the nursing staff loves the recognition they’ve got and it helps push us through hard times, but there are people who aren’t even able to provide food for their families right now. I would love if people would take food for the food banks and donate their money that way to help those in need.”

Both Utley and Crump are grateful that COVID-19 hasn’t spread so severely in Utah as in New York.

“It really hasn’t hit us here,” Utley said. “Everyone there knows somebody that’s been affected by the virus, either gotten it or died from it.”

Crump empathizes with the nurses in New York who have been in a high-stress environment for months now. “I was only there two weeks and after one week, I was ready to come home,” he said.

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