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‘Not why I wanted to be here, but I’m here’: Maryland nurses work on coronavirus front lines at New York hospitals

Ricelle Taganas, 24, of Perry Hall, is working at the Javits Center in Manhattan since April 7, with other Army Reservists from Fort Meade.

Kelly Alilio had never been to New York.

As Alilio, 42, took her first steps in the city, she exuded confidence. She had to — for herself and her worried husband, Alex.

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Last month, Alilio drove north on the New Jersey Turnpike from her Owings Mills home, alongside Alex. She savored the conversation and laughs, hoping to make them last during the 66-day separation ahead.

On April 8, Alilio joined thousands of nurses from across the country to help fight the coronavirus pandemic on the front lines in New York, one of the hardest-hit states in the country.

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She and two other Baltimore-area nurses, Nancy Holmes and Ricelle Taganas, disrupted their lives and those of their concerned families to help strangers. The three women are working in hospitals just a few miles apart in the city.

Knowing the risks, Alilio originally wanted to take a bus to New York. Her husband shut down that idea: If she was going, so was he, at least to drop her off there as she faced the risks of the novel coronavirus.

“It meant a lot to him to be able to take me and to see where I was going to be staying, and to help me get settled,” she said. “I put him in a situation without power or control. That was the one thing he could have control over, getting me there safe and getting me settled.”

She had quit her job as an on-call nurse at Baltimore’s Mercy Medical Center. She planned to continue online classes for her doctorate of nursing practice and family nurse practitioner degree at the University of Maryland, Baltimore when she had time off in this new city.

Once a New Yorker, always a New Yorker

In 2001, Nancy Holmes was at her nurses orientation with other recent graduates at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Lower Manhattan when the class heard a boom.

“We were in class and someone said there’s been an accident,” the Elkridge resident said. “We were in class when 9/11 happened.”

That morning, each newly graduated nurse was assigned a patient on a stretcher as the hospital lobby was transformed into a triage center after the attacks on the World Trade Center.

“This is the kind of stuff they tell you in orientation that you don’t pay attention to because you never think it could happen,” Holmes said. “I was extremely scared, nervous, anxious.”

Nearly 20 years later, Holmes, 44, returned to New York, with hospitals there in an eerily familiar and distressing stance.

“To see New York recover from [9/11] was very humbling,” she said, crying. “When [the coronavirus pandemic] happened, I had to come. I don’t know, I felt like I had to.”

Holmes quit her job at St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore and by April 13 she was back in orientation, this time at Staten Island University Hospital preparing to take care of her first COVID-19 patients.

Answering the call

Ricelle Taganas normally lets phone calls go to voicemail, but when she saw her squad leader calling after 11 on a Tuesday night, she was intrigued and concerned, so she answered.

“She laid it straight to me and asked, ‘Would you be ready?’ ” Taganas, 24, recalled.

Taganas, a Perry Hall resident, is an Army reservist finishing her bachelor’s in nursing at Notre Dame of Maryland University, just weeks from graduating. In the less-than-two-minute phone call, her world changed.

“[I] got off the phone and my heart just started beating out of my chest and I started shaking,” she said. “I knew I could calm myself down in a matter of seconds, but it was such an out-of-body experience for me at that moment that I couldn’t actually physically calm down. Mentally I was OK, but physically I felt all these nerves.”

Taganas didn’t tell her family that night. The next morning, she said the words aloud to her sister Gabbi and parents Melissa and Carlos, for the first time: “I’m leaving.”

“They were appalled. They didn’t know what to do,” she said. “It was a tough conversation to have.”

Taganas had to be ready to go with little notice. She had her bags packed, checked her phone incessantly and mapped each day’s plans around her inevitable departure. She knew the drive to her unit at Fort George G. Meade would take her 45 minutes.

“If I had to go, I could throw my hair up and get ready in a moment’s notice,” she said.

By April 7, Taganas was in New York, ready to work at the Javits Center, the convention center that had been turned into makeshift hospital in Manhattan. It had been nearly a year since she had been in the Big Apple for — of all reasons — a nursing conference.

The first shift

“It was worse than what I expected,” Alilio said.

There were nearly 30 ventilators in the emergency room keeping patients alive on April 10, Alilio’s first day. Stretchers with patients on oxygen lined the hallways as tubes draped the floor to extend the oxygen from patients’ rooms to those in the corridors. Plastic, opaque sheets were temporary doors to keep negative pressure in patients’ rooms.

Kelly Alilio, 42, of Owings Mills, is working in a Brooklyn hospital to help during the coronavirus pandemic.
Kelly Alilio, 42, of Owings Mills, is working in a Brooklyn hospital to help during the coronavirus pandemic. (HANDOUT)

“Those first couple shifts, it was like not real life. I felt like I was in a movie,” she said. “The amount of people in the ER was overwhelming. It was a little surreal.”

Brooklyn has more than 47,000 confirmed cases and approximately 4,000 deaths. It’s one of the harder-hit areas of New York states, which has more than 320,000 cases and more than 19,000 deaths as of Tuesday, according to the New York Department of Health.

Alilio saw and felt the reality of those numbers up close.

Fifteen minutes away across The Narrows strait that separates Brooklyn and Staten Island, Holmes walked to her first day of work on April 15.

Her mind flooded with memories. In the early 2000s, she lived across the street from Staten Island University Hospital, where she now worked. She was reminded of the old New York, a New York that was lively and loud, with no trace of coronavirus in sight.

“I didn’t really know what to expect because I didn’t know anyone else who was [at Staten Island University Hospital],” Holmes said. “I was following the news closely, not able to pull myself away from it. I based [my expectations] on what I had seen on TV.”

At Staten Island University Hospital, she began experiencing a hectic new world.

“My first day they tried to give me four patients,” Holmes said. “There is no way you can take care of four vented ICU patients.”

A typical patient-to-ICU-nurse ratio is 2-to-1, according to Holmes. She had cared for three vented patients every day since her first shift.

“As an ICU nurse, I’m not afraid of death. I’m comfortable with people dying, but a large quantity in a short time, it’s hard,” she said.

In Lower Manhattan, for her first shift the evening of April 10, Taganas walked the three blocks from her hotel to the Javits Center. It was still light outside, but as New Yorkers settled in for the evening, she was just getting started.

Taganas would soon learn to navigate the center, which had been transformed into a vast expanse of hospital pods. She was assigned to the recovery area.

The Javits Center has a decent stock of personal protective equipment, she said.

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She calls her patients “walkie talkies,” those who can walk and perform to the best of their abilities. Some need oxygen tanks to go to the bathroom or a wheelchair because they can’t walk far. Taganas is there to help.

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Feeling very ‘lucky’

With some hospitals experiencing shortages of personal protective equipment, Holmes, Alilio and Taganas all described their situations as “lucky.” However, each illustrated a different version of luck.

Holmes brought gloves and masks from home for her shifts because she didn’t know what to expect and she didn’t want to be caught off guard; she ended up not using them.

“We are allowed to have one N95 [respirator mask] per day, which is good,” she said.

However, Holmes struggles beneath her mask. With each hour that passes on her 12-hour shift, her face gets hotter and hotter.

“These masks are not designed to be worn all day,” Holmes said. “It’s suffocating.”

At the Javits Center, there are stands stocked with “a good supply of PPE,” according to Taganas.

Ricelle Taganas, 24, of Perry Hall, has been working at the Javits Center in New York since April 7 with other Army Reservists from Fort George G. Meade to help with the coronavirus pandemic.
Ricelle Taganas, 24, of Perry Hall, has been working at the Javits Center in New York since April 7 with other Army Reservists from Fort George G. Meade to help with the coronavirus pandemic. (Courtesy Photo)

She shows up for her shifts in her Army uniform. Each nurse there is issued scrubs, an N95 mask, a gown, a surgical mask to put over the N95, gloves, eye shields, boot covers and optional head caps.

Taganas and other nurses at the center have been storing their N95 masks in labeled paper bags to reuse every five days.

“I’ve never taken care of an airborne or droplet patient before this,” Taganas said. “Every day I’m nervous I, myself, could get sick.”

When it all clicked

Holmes realized quickly she was living the life she had watched so closely on TV. The constant overhead codes indicating emergencies and patients in distress rang throughout her shift, just as the nurses on TV told her they would.

“It’s overwhelming emotionally,” she said.

For Alilio, the constant overhead codes were just the tip of the iceberg. She recalled the time a doctor had to drill a hole in a patient’s head to drain fluid. There was no operating room to use, so it had to be done in the ER.

“That was a ‘holy crap’ moment,” she said.

Each day Alilio walks by three trucks parked outside her Brooklyn hospital. She knows now that the trucks are a makeshift morgue brought in out of necessity.

“Every COVID patient that I have taken care of has died.”


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She recalled another moment when an alert popped up in the corner of the hospital’s computer systems: A usually empty corner of the screen was now occupied with the word “disaster.” The irony wasn’t lost on her, she said, of using the word “disaster” in a disaster zone.

“Every COVID patient that I have taken care of has died,” Alilio said.

A little hope

Taganas takes comfort in being surrounded by her “second family.” Though she’s alone in her Manhattan hotel room, she relishes every chance to spend time with her fellow Army nurses.

“It only feels normal to me because I’m surrounded by friends and people that I know,” Taganas said. “I can’t imagine being a travel nurse or a civilian nurse who signed a contract to be away from their families with people that they don’t know and going to a place like the Javits ... and having to work with complete strangers.”

Outside the Javits Center, when she’s not doing her schoolwork, Taganas runs along the Hudson River. Exercise for her is self care; she runs the stairs in the hotel from the fifth floor to the 29th and back down again.

She’ll likely still be working at the Javits Center when she graduates May 17. There will be no formal celebration for now, just busy nights helping those who need it.

“Listening to these people’s stories and how they got to the hospital and who they are outside of the hospital, that reminds me why I am so in love with the profession of nursing,” she said.

“A lot of the work that I’ve done wasn’t even trying to fix anything. It was more so being that person that they get to talk to because they probably haven’t seen their family in weeks. While I was tasked with caring for patients, it was more of being that shoulder to cry on, that person to talk to at night to kind of ease their anxieties.”

At the end of a long shift, Holmes opens the door to her place in Staten Island, drops her bags and turns on the TV. She re-watches a day like she just lived. She uses the FaceTime app to see and talk to her daughter, Hailey, who’s staying with family in Connecticut.

“It’s hard being away from your family and your kid. [I know] she’s taken care of and I don’t have to worry about that,” Holmes said.

By June 7, they’ll be reunited.

For Alilio, the day after Easter was a tipping point at her Brooklyn hospital. The number of patients decreased and the pace slowed. The coronavirus still surrounds her, but it’s less consuming.

“I think a lot of the people who had been [at the hospital] had passed away. It made room,” she said somberly. “We’re in a place where we’re seeing the impact of social distancing.”

Alilio spends days off sleeping and thinking of the New York outside her window, the one she hasn’t yet met. She uses FaceTime to read her 3-year-old son a bedtime story over the phone sometimes, too.

She’s fielded all kinds of first-time New York suggestions from friends and family, Central Park and Coney Island among them. She’s quickly approaching her May 30 end date, and as the hospital shifts get slightly less exhausting, her schoolwork lessens and the weather clears up, she’s closer and closer to seeing the Big Apple.

“I’ve always wanted to go [to New York] and here I am," she said. "Not why I wanted to be here, but I’m here.”

A sign thanks medical workers outside Staten Island University Hospital on April 15 in the Staten Island borough of New York City.
A sign thanks medical workers outside Staten Island University Hospital on April 15 in the Staten Island borough of New York City. (David Dee Delgado / Getty Images)
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