LYNDON — Before this year, registered nurse Samantha Gale had never worked in a hospital outside the Northeast Kingdom.

During 2020, Gale has spent months working on the front lines of the war against COVID-19, first in New York City and then in Houston, Texas.

She responded to the call for help from both urban centers which urgently needed travel nurses to care for patients in hospital COVID units.

Gale spent two-and-a-half months in New York City this spring, then over the summer, two more months in Texas — both hot zones for the Coronavirus pandemic when she was deployed to those cities.

She shared her journey during both experiences on social media throughout her COVID travel nurse journey, and this week sat down for an interview to tell her story for Caledonian-Record readers.

A Difficult, Very Quick Decision

Since the start of her career in 2015, Gale, 31, has been an RN at Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital in St. Johnsbury, where she began right after finishing her bachelors of science in Nursing degree from Marion University in Indianapolis, Ind.

She had to quit her job at NVRH this spring, when she decided to extend an initial 3-week travel nursing job in a COVID-plus unit in New York City for an additional month.

“When this all happened, all of the hospitals around here, they shut down, they weren’t having any more procedures, or elective surgeries anymore. NVRH made a COVID unit, so I was helping staff that a little bit,” Gale explained during an interview at her home on Sunday.

She said, “We weren’t seeing that many people in the clinic anymore, things were really slowing down.”

“I kept seeing advertisements with pleas for nurses to come to New York, and the company I went with initially had a lot of Facebook posts, ‘Call in at such and such a time,’ to deploy to New York … for three weeks, and they take care of everything,” Gale explained. “It just seemed like an easy way to help, I didn’t have to think about anything.”

Gale said she tried calling in twice and couldn’t get through, “and then I made it in April 15th or 16th, I got through on the phone and I had to make a decision right then.”

She had 48 hours to get to New York.

“They hadn’t answered for two days before, I wasn’t sure they were going to answer, so I was kind of just half-heartedly calling before work, and then I got through and I was like, ‘Oh no!’” said Gale. She was on the phone for five minutes. “They just tell you the basics. They don’t give you much information. They tell you what hotel to be at.”

She flew out of Lebanon, N.H. on a small plane bound for Logan Airport, then made a connection to New York City from Boston.

Most people in her family were hesitant and “not sure it was a good idea, because COVID is scary and I was going into the middle of it.”

Gale said her husband, Caleb, an engineer at Fairbanks Scales in St. Johnsbury, was supportive of her decision both to work in the thick of the pandemic in New York City at the height of the outbreak, and her decision to quit NVRH to stay in the city.

“Caleb understood that I was aching to do more than just phone calls for my clinic. I wanted to go out and help with my nursing degree,” she said. “They needed help. I could help.”

Arriving On Assignment

On arriving in New York, Gale caught an Uber to the Marriott Hotel in Times Square.

It was about 8 p.m. when she arrived, and Times Square, usually bustling with life, was quiet.

She was told only to be at the hospital in the Bronx at 5 a.m. the next morning.

She spent the first two days taking part in online training for her assignments. On the third day, she was sent to a hospital in the Bronx for a night shift, which she describes as “one horrible night.”

“It was just devastating,” said Gale of her introduction, following another traveling nurse on her inaugural shift in a COVID unit.

She said, “I knew it wouldn’t be stellar,” but she said there was no support, and just one vital sign monitor for a 45-bed unit, and one nursing assistant on the unit. There were hardly any gloves, and just one gown per staff member per shift, not the standard swap-out between patients she was accustomed to. She said it felt contaminated and dirty.

“People were not 100 percent geared up,” Gale said of her first experience. “Now I could see why the numbers were so high … It was devastating; I cried all night.”

Most of the patients were COVID positive, and were being given maximum oxygen levels before needing ventilators, explained Gale.

“It was intense emotionally,” she said.

Gale said many of the patients were under-privileged and were not getting “the health care they deserved,” saying what she saw that first eye-opening night was “a sad situation.”

She only did one night at that hospital, then was sent to the Roosevelt Island Medical Center, which had been shuttered more than a decade, and was re-opened due to the pandemic and need for expanded capacity in New York City. The nurses were picked up at their hotels and sent on tour buses to their assignments every day.

Initially, the hospital on Roosevelt Island located between Queens and Manhattan was supposed to be for COVID negative patients, but they ended up receiving COVID positive patients.

The patients at the hospital were mainly recovering from COVID 19, so were “on the upswing,” many with evidence of their time on ventilators including tracheotomy scars; some were on oxygen, but many were doing better and they were at the hospital while awaiting placements.

A number of her patients were homeless and there was just one social worker trying to help all the patients at the recently re-opened hospital, she said.

They didn’t have enough resources — basic necessities sometimes, like IV start kits — and they would have to “run around the building,” trying to find one for a patient, she said.

“It was a little scary,” she said of working at the hospital, where up to 200 patients were being cared for.

While many of the patients were not acutely ill, there were “a lot of impoverished, poor and ethnic people in New York who didn’t have a lot of help,” and who had caught the virus. “There were heartbreaking situations I’ll never forget.”

Gale would stay on at the Roosevelt Island hospital the rest of her assignment in New York City, working there for her 8-week extension after the initial 3-week commitment.

The work, and the separation from her family (including 1 1/2 year-old daughter Lillian), were emotionally difficult but Gale said the money was lucrative.

While the decision to quit her job at NVRH involved “an agonizing couple of days,” she said she and her husband decided “it was definitely worth me quitting for this experience.”

She ended up being away from mid-April through the end of June, and saw her family through FaceTime mostly, saying missing Lillian “was the hardest thing.”

Gale said the experience working with a corps of nurses on a shared mission was both military-like, and in some ways like the college experience she had never had.

“I have lifelong friends from two months of being there,” she said.

There were nurses from all over the country and other parents who sacrificed time with their kids to take the assignments, said Gale.

Just about everyone had the same story: They signed up for a few weeks and decided to stay on longer and work in New York, and had to resign their nursing jobs back home.

On her 31st birthday, Gale jet-skied around the Statue of Liberty, and on her off-time she explored and saw New York City like she never would have had the chance to otherwise, she said.

“New York did a really great job of shutting down,” and controlling the virus after the terrible initial outbreak in the spring, said Gale.

While in New York, Gale said she had the opportunity to take part in Black Lives Matter protests, and she said the nurses were treated like celebrities at times. Theater district workers who were on furlough due to the pandemic would greet the nurses with signs on Broadway to thank them publicly and celebrate them.

“I had never been celebrated for being a nurse before … it was special,” said Gale with a smile.

Symptoms Of COVID-19

Caleb, Samantha’s husband, went to New York to bring her home to Lyndon when her service concluded.

She had had a negative COVID test before leaving New York, and they decided she would quarantine at home.

A few days after returning to Vermont, though, Gale began having symptoms, which she at first hoped were her seasonal allergies.

When she got a second COVID test back home, she found out she was positive. She was terrified she may have given her husband and young child the virus, but they did not contract it, and she quarantined in her house away from them for the next week, Gale said.

She could not believe she had been working in active COVID units for two months and had not contracted COVID then, not only caught it at the end of her stay, but brought it home.

Gale said she was so grateful that her family did not get sick, and she was fortunate to make a pretty fast recovery after having a mild case.

She was undaunted and decided to take a second assignment in a COVID unit, this time outside Houston, Texas, another COVID hot spot.

Texas COVID ICU

On arriving in Texas, Gale found out she was assigned to an ICU unit. She had worked in ICU in Vermont earlier in her career, but it had been awhile. She said the staffing company must have seen that on her resume and assigned her accordingly.

That meant very sick COVID patients.

Gale arrived in Texas on July 18 and worked on that assignment through Sept. 13.

“It was completely different,” she said.

She jumped into the work on the night shift at the small hospital, which was small, like NVRH, so that familiarity was a saving grace for Gale.

The hospital had an 8-bed ICU and had converted another space to add another 9 beds for the unit.

She said the patients were nearly all vented and the units looked like spaceships inside, with rows of silenced patients on ventilators.

“It was eerie,” said Gale. “These people were really sick.”

She saw some patients come off ventilators, but many others deteriorated, and did not make it. Talking with families, who wanted their loved ones resuscitated against all odds, many Hispanic families with deep religious faith, was heartbreaking, said Gale.

“We did everything we could,” she said.

Families, of course, could not visit the unit due to the pandemic, and sometimes a family would ask to FaceTime with their loved one in the unit.

There were people of all ages in the unit, including “a lot of young people,” said Gale, in their 30s and 40s. She met one patient in her 20s who had had a mild case of COVID, like what Gale had just barely recovered from, and who caught it again and now was fighting for her life. She thought, “That could happen to me.”

Someone in their 30s coded on one of her night shifts, “I was really scared,” said Gale. But one good difference from New York was that the level of PPE or Personal Protective Equipment was really good in Houston. She would get home to her hotel and de-contaminate herself before going to sleep, while working up to 7 days a week in Houston.

“I lost more patients than I saved,” said Gale.

Asked if she will return to COVID work anytime soon, Gale was quick to shake her head no.

“I’m done,” she said.

But the work was a privilege for which she’s grateful. She said she was able to bring the best of nursing to patients, through compassionate care giving and treating people with the dignity they deserved.

She had no trouble finding a job again as an RN, and, in fact, returned to NVRH full-time, in a new role she’s happy with, this past Monday.

With her experience on the front lines of two hard-hit cities during the pandemic, Gale wants people to know this: “It is real and people need to take precautions. It’s not political. It’s probably going to get worse again and we need to be careful.”

“We’re very lucky to live where we do,” said Gale.

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