Volunteering at a COVID-19 testing center in Manhattan was challenging yet rewarding
Written by: Chandra Bishun-Freeman, Senior Medical Assistant, Northwell Health Cardiology Upper East Side
My experience during the COVID-19 pandemic has been surreal yet terribly real. It has turned our world upside down. Life has changed — under different rules, protocols, even regulations. Like many others, this surreal experience started quickly for me.
For nearly every day of my married life, my husband would stop whatever he was doing to greet me at the door with a warm hello and a kiss when I came home. Our dog also sits patiently by the door, waiting to play. That was all gone in a matter of a few days.
Coming home after work, I run straight to the sink to wash my hands and change my clothes and shower. I greet my husband with an elbow bump. No more kissing or embracing. Our dog has to wait, sadly looking at me until I can give her attention. Since I was not sure if I was working with COVID patients at Northwell Health Cardiology, I followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations to practice social distancing at home. Bringing the virus home was a real fear, especially working in health care and traveling on subways and buses.
I’ve been at this cardiology practice for more than seven years, where I’ve focused on providing high quality patient care and support to my coworkers. I am a health care professional and a team player. I did not have a shred of doubt about my role. It is our calling, even if it means working outside normal routines. And in early March, I volunteered to work in one of Northwell’s hospitals that was most affected by COVID-19.
In about a week, I was redeployed to Northwell’s COVID-19 Testing Center on East 76th Street for four weeks in April. I was grateful to work on the front lines despite being fearful for my wellbeing and potentially bringing the virus home. Trying to fall back on my professional training, I ventured out in mask, gloves and worked six days each week, taking the nearly empty bus and train to and from work every day. As odd as this might sound, this was the work that I desperately wanted to do.
At the testing center, we performed nasal swab and blood testing for COVID-19 serology antibodies. The newly formed staff at the facility started training for nasal swabbing by practicing on one another. I was nervous knowing that someone would be putting a long and thin swab up my nose. I was only thinking about the pain and discomfort. Suddenly, I was a patient and a swabber-in-training. Having a swab inserted was the most uncomfortable feeling, but a necessary evil considering the circumstances. Doing it myself allowed me to calm patients and perform the test with precision and efficiency.
Despite the oversized white suit (PPE), I was still fearful of catching COVID-19. Most seven-hour days were spent in an isolation suit, along with a mask, gloves and face shield. What I remember most is how much I had to breathe my own bad breath. Coffee, onions, a bit of everything that went into my mouth would become something I inhaled for the rest of the day. As a swabber, my role was to stand in a room behind a plexiglass separation/protection to perform nasal swabbing. We treated every patient the same — assume they have COVID-19. Some patients came in with a fever. Others were very flush in the face. I remember one patient said to me “please don’t stand close to me. I am coughing and sick. I might be COVID positive.” Every patient, every moment was a heightened state of stress, focus and engagement.
Three days into working at the testing center, my husband told me my color was off. Most likely, I thought, because of wearing a mask, recirculating my own exhale for more than 12 hours. In another week, I had symptoms — runny nose, achy body and a cough.
Still, I enjoyed every moment working at the testing center, especially my colleagues. We made the best of the situation, offering light jokes to keep in the right mindset. During the four weeks working there, I met people from all over the health system. Leadership from Lenox Hill Hospital brought Bombas socks for each employee one day. There were free bagel breakfasts each Monday at another site across the city. Many of the patients I saw at the center were appreciative and thankful of the work I was doing, too, even those who indicated they felt ill and might be COVID positive. Although they were hidden behind their masks I could see how they genuinely felt by just looking at their eyes.
The long hours can wear on you. Waking up early was a part of it, considering I took an early train and crosstown bus to get there. I also volunteered to work 12-hour shifts on Saturdays. After the first Saturday, which followed a 40-hour week, every bone in my body ached, only remedied by a warm bath with Epsom Salt and an 8 p.m. bedtime.
By then, the mild symptoms I experienced a few days earlier worsened. My husband told me he had diarrhea and shortness of breath. Anxiety rose as I now was tested and eagerly anticipated the results while staying home. He and I pretended everything would be fine. And each day, each email or phone call, he would ask “is that the test result?” Luckily, I tested negative, a stress relief like no other. My husband and I kissed and hugged for the first time in what felt like weeks.
I also earned a recognition award from Northwell for working the front lines. Even with the fear of risking my own life, the sweat trickling down my body in the isolation suit, working the long hours, riding the early morning trains alone, without an ounce of doubt I would do this all over again. It was the right thing to do. But, in honesty, it will take the effort of thousands of front line workers who work each day to mitigate the impact of this pandemic. It’s a challenge worth fighting.
Chandra Bishun-Freeman is a senior medical assistant at Northwell Health Cardiology Upper East Side.
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