Into the 'unknown’: Nurse travels to NYC to treat coronavirus ICU patients

Registered nurse Sharlene Jenkins. Credit: Holly Fain.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Monday asked health care professionals nationwide to come to his state to help treat their flood of coronavirus patients.

“We need relief for nurses who are working 12 hour shifts. One after the other, after the other. We need relief for doctors. We need relief for attendants. So if you’re not busy, come help us please,” he said. 

As of noon today, New York has more than 75,000 confirmed cases and more than 900 deaths. 

More than 76,000 health care workers are responding to his call. Some are coming out of retirement. Others are coming from the private sector. 

Registered nurse Sharlene Jenkins is on her way to New York. She was originally going to Texas, then changed plans.

“I grew up in New York, so that's really what caused me to do it. I was like, ‘Okay I'll cancel my contract in Texas, head back home to New York, and help out however I can,” she tells Press Play. 

She’ll spend eight weeks working at NYU, caring for COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit (ICU). 

“My specialty is cardiovascular ICU, and that's where patients have open heart, open chest surgery. And I've been doing that since I graduated college in 2007,” she says.

What does Jenkins make of the situation facing health care workers now, including shortages of hospital beds, personal protective equipment (PPE), and even staff? 

“It's a little bit surreal because obviously I've never lived through anything like this personally or professionally. So what I'm walking into when I do get to New York – it is a lot of unknown. The shortage of health care workers is not a new issue. … Governor Cuomo is correct – we need people to come help,” she says.  

“And as far as working with the shortage of equipment and things like that, I've never really had to work in an environment like that. So this will be definitely new and definitely a teaching moment for me, which I love,” she adds. 

With PPE shortages, a health care worker might receive one mask per shift. 

“It's a little overwhelming because we have learned throughout our years of education and practice that the masks are single use. But we're in a crisis, so we kind of have to do what we have to do,” she says. 

Jenkins can pull from her own personal gear though. She owns masks, including the medical-grade N95 variety. 

Higher pay for nurses amid COVID-19

Jenkins says nurses have never been offered this much money: “Some hospitals are offering $6000 a week for travel nurses.”  

How does that compare to regular pay? Jenkins says she does her assignments for about $2500/week. 

“So that's why I said, ‘Oh my God, they really need help.’ So I have a lot of faith and spirituality, and I feel like I'm called to do this. So I don't think it would have sat right with my spirit if I had gone to Texas at this point because … I have to help.”

After New York 

When Jenkins finishes her stay in New York, would she consider coming to California if we need her? 

“Yeah, I actually already had this plan in my head … I'll do my eight weeks there. We'll see what happens in the next two months. And then I would go to the next city or place that's hit hard, wherever that is,” she says. 

–Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin