MUSC Health nurses head to pandemic hotspots. Here's one nurse's firsthand account.

May 05, 2020
MUSC Health nurse Louis D'Eugenio wears a bandage on his nose due to irritation from wearing personal protective equipment during 12-hour shifts in Yonkers, New York. Photos provided

Eight MUSC Health nurses and an Emergency Department technician are in New York taking care of COVID-19 patients. Other MUSC Health nurses and respiratory therapists are in Detroit and Atlanta and one is serving in the National Guard during the pandemic.

 

Nurse Louis D’Eugenio is in Yonkers, New York. He’s temporarily working at St. Joseph’s Medical Center near the Bronx. At one point, a doctor there described the COVID-19 situation as a nightmare, with an unprecedented volume of patients and dozens of staff members testing positive for the new coronavirus.

D’Eugenio, a married father of two teenagers, arrived about two weeks ago to help. In a phone interview, he described how he came to be there, what it has been like and what he wants South Carolinians to know.

Here’s Louis D’Eugenio in his own words. This interview has been condensed for clarity.

I was working in the ER one day in Charleston, and it had gotten to the point where things were kind of slow. That’s when my phone rang. Usually I have my phone on silent, but for some reason I didn’t that day. So I grabbed it out of my pocket to try to silence it quickly and realized it was a call from New York. 

I answered it, and it was the vice president of human relations for this hospital who wanted to know if I wanted to take a position up there at St. Joseph’s. I told him I was at work and I would get back to him and call him tomorrow when I was off. He was pretty adamant that I call that evening

I called him back, and he said, ‘We’re a small community hospital in Yonkers. We need the help. We can make this happen very, very quickly.’ And he just needed some paperwork and discussed contractual issues and wanted me for four to six weeks.

St. Joseph's Hospital in Yonkers, NY 
D'Eugenio took this photo of the hospital in Yonkers, New York, where he's working during the coronavirus pandemic.

MUSC had asked us earlier if we wanted to make ourselves available to help in COVID hotspots and shared our information with hospitals that needed help. I just kind of saw this as an opportunity to jump in and do my part. My wife was on board, and my kids were on board. The only person I think wasn’t on board was my mother. She’s actually a nurse and was on board, but she was just about as frightened as I would be if it was one of my kids.

I was very excited at the prospect of being able to help. It was sort of a fast decision I had to make. 

Within a couple of days, I was driving up to New York. It wasn’t till I had 12 hours in the car to drive that it really started to sink in. I remember seeing the New York City skyline and being really frightened – thinking, not only is this a new hospital and there are all these people I don’t know, but a lot of people are dying all over the place up here. I’d seen refrigerated cars outside with bodies in them on the news. So it was kind of a wake-up call. I was still very glad I was doing it, but I’m not going to lie and say I wasn’t afraid.

When I got there, the hospital’s human resources people set things up for me. They used a corporate credit card to pay for me to stay in a hotel for a month. So I checked in. 

I knew I had orientation the next day, so I mapped out my route to the hospital and took a little drive through the area. It’s just north of the Bronx. It is very old. It’s outside of the whole skyscraper area –not a ton of giant buildings. It’s pretty obvious there’s a lot of poverty. Then I went back to the hotel room and crashed because I was exhausted.

The next day was orientation. When I walked into the ER for the first day, there were four people on ventilators, which you don’t see in the ER at MUSC. When somebody gets vented in the ER at MUSC, they go straight to the intensive care unit. But in New York, the ICU was already full of other COVID patients.

I kind of knew what was I was in for. I had a couple of weeks of pretty much devouring news and knew what it was like. Plus, I have a friend who lives in Manhattan, and he’d kind of given me the heads-up of how bad things really were.

The next day, they teamed me up with one of their nurses who was a regular there for a while. That was it – I got one day of orientation. They were overwhelmed, so they were looking for somebody to hit the ground running. 

I came in, and they assigned me two of the vented patients. I had to learn their pumps and learn their ventilators, make sure I understood what was going on so I could take care of them. These people were extremely ill. They essentially were in respiratory failure.

While they were really busy, by the time I got there, the peak had passed. They’re anticipating another peak at some point, but for now, it’s not as overwhelming as it was. 

The AP did a story maybe the week before I came up here. They did a tour inside the hospital, and they interviewed a medical director. He was talking about how in one day, he pronounced six people dead. That’s unheard of. Even at MUSC, where we’re a Level 1 trauma center, I’ve never seen them pronounce more than one person in a day. 

Whatever we can do to make this not happen in Charleston, that’s what we need to do. It’s awful. One of my co-workers up here, he got sick and brought it home to his 7-year-old child who died yesterday. 

I feel like as long as I stay on my toes, I can keep myself safe. That essentially means being covered from head to toe for 12 hours. It definitely concerns me. I’m a numbers guy. I know the odds of my getting seriously sick from it aren’t that bad, but I don’t want to have to be quarantined in a hotel or bring it home to my family.

I miss my family a lot. But at the same time, being here to help during the pandemic is very satisfying because the staff and my manager and the physicians are all very obviously pleased to have us up here. 

That’s one of the great things about being a nurse. When a politician like Governor Cuomo is asking for people to help, and you have the skillset that can be useful, it gives you license to say, ‘You know, I can do this.’ 

MUSC has been extremely supportive of my being here. I’ll go back when my time in New York is up. They already have me on the schedule.

The hardest thing about being in New York has been seeing people die from this illness. Just knowing the patient you were doing chest compressions on died from COVID-19. It’s definitely something that will stick with me.

Another thing that really stands out is how this team has stuck together. To think what these people have been through prior to me coming up here and that they still come to work every day. That, to me, is just a very tight team. They’ve been through what I can only imagine is absolute hell for the last month. Maybe longer. And the fact that they’re still plugging along and coming in every day is pretty amazing.

I think when my colleagues and I come back from New York, we’ll probably get grilled by our team in Charleston about what we saw and how things are managed. What to do, what to not do, that sort of thing. I definitely feel like that will be helpful.

The key point I’d want to drive home is that I hear all this information about South Carolina opening back up, and I just hope that that’s not a bad decision. People are going to get this illness. It would be nice if it didn’t happen with so many people getting sick at the same time.

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Staff Report

Keywords: COVID-19