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Nevada nurse shellshocked after COVID-19 work at NYC hospital

Updated May 5, 2020 - 8:47 am

Even after working through 9/11 and an Ebola crisis, Susan Yowell wasn’t prepared for what she saw working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Everyone tries to describe it, but after 40 years in nursing, well, it was 1,000 times worse than anything I’ve expected,” Yowell said Monday.

The 64-year-old Mesquite nurse spent a month at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City after she saw Gov. Andrew Cuomo on television calling on health care professionals around the country to help.

Yowell and her husband, Jack, had planned to be on a cruise when Cuomo made the call, but it had been canceled and the couple went home.

“Jack looked at me and I looked at him, and he said, ‘Well, are you gonna go?’ ” she said.

‘It’s just indescribable’

This wasn’t the first time Susan Yowell has jumped in to help during a crisis. She traveled to New York City in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and volunteered at Mount Sinai Beth Israel. In 2014, she went to the Kaiser Permanente facility in Oakland, California, to advise on Ebola education.

Yowell left Las Vegas on April 7, worked two full orientation shifts on April 8-9 and then dove into the night shift.

On her first day, she was assigned four patients to watch over. Ideally, a nurse should work with one or two patients at a time depending on the level of care they need.

“It’s just indescribable to walk in and learn you had four patients that day,” Yowell said. “When I arrived, the other nurses said it looked like a war zone.”

She said COVID-19 was an entirely different experience compared with the other two crises she has worked.

“After 9/11 we were mostly waiting around for the patients to come in, and that was hard,” Yowell said. “Here, it’s the sheer number of patients that’s the hard part.”

Most striking were the number of deaths she saw daily and the wide range in ages of her patients.

While older people and those who already have medical conditions are most vulnerable to COVID-19, Yowell said she saw many people in their 30s and 40s.

“So many nights, I went home and just cried,” she said. “I know I did my best but it really felt like I didn’t, because so many people still died.”

The mental toll of responding to a pandemic can’t be understated, Yowell said. A younger nurse who worked in an intensive care unit for four weeks told Yowell that she knew she would walk away with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Psychologically, I think it will definitely affect me,” Yowell said. “The first day I stayed in New York, I couldn’t sleep. I knew there were other nurses working after I left, but it was all I could think about.”

‘What am I doing?’

Because of her experience, Yowell worked with the most critically ill COVID-19 patients at the medical center.

Due to the violent coughing that comes with COVID-19, some patients on ventilators are dosed with rocuronium, a medication that causes paralysis, to prevent them from coughing up their breathing tubes. On top of this, they were given mind-altering narcotics and painkillers.

All but one of Yowell’s patients were unable to speak or respond to her.

“I looked around and thought, ‘What am I doing?’ ” Yowell said. “ ‘Am I going to catch it and end up in the hospital like them?’ ”

She talked to patients about the weather or the news, assured them that they were in a safe place and explained what she and other nurses were doing to treat them.

“It doesn’t matter whether a patient can talk to me or not,” she said, “talking to them is a huge help. I learned it the best when I worked trauma.”

The hospital added almost 250 additional ICU beds, and nurses were always overwhelmed, Yowell said. Often, she and other nurses had to work longer hours than usual just to keep up.

But the experience was as rewarding as it was traumatic. She saw physicians, nurses and students work together to save lives.

“It wasn’t just nurses; it was doctors, too,” she said, “working side by side, like I’d never seen in the nursing field before.”

Students were paired with registered nurses to help in any way they could.

“Millennials, they’re so resilient,” she said, “but one of them said to me, ‘Your experience is what I don’t have.’ ”

Back in Las Vegas

“This one really bothered me because I was worried about her,” Jack Yowell said. “This is unlike any travel assignment she’s ever had; it’s unlike any assignment she’s ever had.”

Susan Yowell returned and reunited with her husband at McCarran International Airport on Sunday.

“For just a few days near the end I was a little depressed, but I was very, very proud,” Jack Yowell said.

But she worries that she may see the same scenes from New York City in Southern Nevada.

Many patients told her they would visit Las Vegas as soon as it reopened, but when she returned she saw few people wearing masks or practicing social distancing, even at the airport.

“If they open up and everybody starts flying in, well, it’s going to be very interesting when they open up Las Vegas,” she said.

Contact Max Michor at mmichor@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0365. Follow @MaxMichor on Twitter.

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