All of RN Kerrie Mitrione’s training and medical experience did not prepare her to answer the question that her 13-year-old son asked on a recent Facetime exchange they shared in between Mitrione’s 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. shifts at Metropolitan Hospital in New York City.
“I didn’t think they understood the magnitude,” Mitrione, 44, said about her three teenaged children.
But her youngest realized that his mother might be the last person that COVID-19 patients see before succumbing to the virus, without family members by their side.
“Tommy asked, ‘If people are dying, what are their last words?’ ”
Mitrione’s answer: “They don’t really have any because they can’t breathe.”
The look on her son’s face broke her heart, she said.
The reality of the battle against COVID-19 is hitting home for more and more people as the numbers on CDC dashboards climb, news about a lack of equipment is learned, and the inability to keep up with the influx of COVID-19 patients in New York City hospitals gets increasingly worse.
Mitrione got clearance to go to New York at 4 p.m. on March 18th and was on a plane three hours later arriving in the city at midnight.
She completed orientation online and when she arrived at Metropolitan Hospital, a 383-bed facility in East Harlem, she said it reminded her of a smaller community hospital like Alachua General Hospital (AGH) where she started her career. “I feel like I have gone back 20 years,” she said.
“I introduced myself and said where I was from, and they started clapping,” she said.
Mitrione has been an ER nurse for 13 years. She also became a combat medic in 1994 and served in the U.S. Army Reserves in Jacksonville and Gainesville.
Mitrione earned her LPN from Santa Fe College in 1996 and then studied at UF to earn her RN in 2001 and went to work at AGH.
“This is not for everybody,” said Mitrione, who has lost 10 pounds so far on her assignment, which is 21 days of working 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
She said a space on her floor that used to be an asthma room was cleared out and now serves as an intubation room with a plastic barrier for a door.
It’s a teaching hospital with residents taking on intubation duties, she said. Sometimes three at a time, sometimes without knowing blood pressures and borrowing crash carts to use as heart monitors and measure oxygen levels.
“When I first got here, we were told we had to change our gowns,” she said. “As of two days ago, we have been issued one to reuse.”
“I’ve been a nurse for a long time,” she said. “That first day, I was in shock.
“So many patients were on ventilators, there were biohazard signs to know who is in isolation.
“The flow comes in waves, and they move patients quickly and new patients keep coming in and you can’t find where they moved the old ones.”
“The mask situation so far is good,” Mitrione said. “We have N95s and wear them for 5 days.”
Other personal protective equipment is in dwindling supply, she said and described what she wears. “Full body suit or paper scrubs, gown on top, goggles, face shield, N95 mask with a simple mask over that.”
“I wear gloves all day and my skin has started to break down. They are diagnosing people with N95 syndrome from wearing masks, she said, which can cause headaches and shortness of breath and sometimes affect decision-making skills.
Mitrione promised to not put herself in an unsafe situation during her three weeks. And the best way is to play it safe and “Just assume everybody has it.”
“My state of mind is like I’m in basic training. Exhausted, having flashbacks.”
She said she signed up for this journey perhaps for closure because she entered the Army Reserves just as Desert Storm ended and exited just before the war in Iraq began. She never got to go to the front lines.
“This was my chance to serve my country in a way I haven’t been able to,” she said about fighting the COVID-19 battle.
“Some of the things I learned in the military, I feel like that’s coming back to me in the fact that it’s time to be strong mentally.”
Physically, she said it doesn’t hurt to boost up on vitamins along with zinc and vitamin c.
Spiritually, she said, “It’s been overwhelming to see how many people that are praying for me. That’s giving me strength to stay positive.
“And when I come back, I will quarantine for two weeks and go back to work to help when Gainesville gets an influx of patients.”
To read part three: "You can't win a war if you send your soldiers into battle without armor", go here.
To read part four: "Gainesville nurse resigns to answer calling in New York City hospital", go here.
This is the second in a series entitled "Frontline NYC" by Mainstreet Daily News Staff Writer Suzette Cook about the experiences of nurses from Gainesville dispatched to New York City in the fight against COVID-19.