New York, NY – Jacobi Medical Center ER nurse Kelley Cabrera, 28, has been an RN for six years. During the worst of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, she and her colleagues routinely worked double shifts “until travel nurses came from across the country” to aid their comrades.
Back at the beginning of April, most of the patients in Cabrera’s Bronx ER were COVID-19 positive.
“We actually created an extra space for COVID-19 patients,” the New York State Nurses Association [NYSNA] member says. “Most everyone in the hospital had COVID-19.”
When asked if she and the other nurses had adequate PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) from the beginning of the pandemic — Cabrera says, no.
“Similar to other facilities, we were told to reuse [our masks],” Cabrera says. “Before — with tuberculosis, for example — we were told to use new ones. On March 28,, we had a protest outside the hospital. We got a lot of media coverage. We were one of the first [rallies] to get coverage. Then other protests started. That sparked donations. After the first protest, the very same day, a man drove from Maryland to give us a donation of masks. He said he saw us on TV. The response was very positive. Other donations started to come in — some handmade, some from construction jobs they had at home, masks and goggles, too.”
Still, the toll on ER staff was devastating.
“We had a lot of deaths among patients,” Cabrera says. “Before COVID-19, every hospital had a code where you know when a patient is dying — an announcement. [During the pandemic] the calls overhead were going off all the time. It started off a slow trickle, then everybody had it. It was very different [than now], we couldn’t test everybody. We had to diagnose with x-ray because we didn’t have the technical capabilities we have now.”
Difficulties caused by the government contributed to the death toll.
“The government limited our ability to control the spread,” Cabrera says. “[With] one of the first patients we suspected had COVID-19, we had to be in multiple conversations with the Department of Health to see whether we could test the patient. [And] you can’t do contact tracing without tests. [It] contributed to so much of the panic and spread. If we had been testing, and able to shut down earlier, [it would have been different.]”
Cabrera deeply feels the anguish and suffering affected families experienced as a result.
“I would never want anyone to see what I saw; [relatives] bringing family members by car or whatever. I watched many people say goodbye not knowing if they were going to make it out and die alone,” she says “This scale…it didn’t have to be this bad.”
Cabrera says union action helped nurses get through it all.
“The union helped with media contacts for the protest — the importance of having a union was never as important as it is now,” she says. “Former co-workers not in a union reached out to me to ask what can they do. There were reports of other facilities where workers that were not in unions and were fired for speaking out. It’s been really important to realize how much power we have collectively. Our union has 42,000 workers. I realize it’s not just our individual facility; I went to other hospitals around the city — other people came here to support us.”