‘We knew there was a chance we’re not coming home’: Louisville nurses share experience working in NYC hospitals fighting COVID-19

Samantha Heavrin and Salle McAfee said it’s hard to describe how they first felt walking into the hospital ICU in New York City.

“It was something I’d never seen before,” McAfee said. “A nurse had told us that walking into the emergency room, it was like a mass casualty war zone.”

“They shoved them in every nook and cranny they could find,” Heavrin said. “If a hallway was double the size of a normal hallway, half of it was hallway and the other half was a MASH unit.”

Heavrin and McAfee, both certified registered nurse anesthetists, said they had just started work at the new Bennett and Bloom Eye Center when it was forced to close. Instead of sitting at home and relying on their savings, they decided to join the fight against the novel coronavirus pandemic in New York City, which has been one of the hardest-hit cities in the world.

“Deep down inside we knew there was a chance we’re not coming back,” Heavrin said.

Heavrin said her decision reminded her of the days after the terrorist attacks of September 11. She said she had wanted to travel to New York City to help with the relief efforts but she was pregnant with her son and could not make the trip. So when she saw the need arise more than 18 years later, she knew she had to answer the call.

“I had this terrible feeling of not being able to help and knowing you wanted to,” she said. “So when this opportunity arose, I really felt like it was the right thing to do.”

When Heavrin and McAfee arrived at the hospital, they knew there likely wasn’t going to be a huge need for anesthesia. So like many other healthcare professionals, they pitched in wherever they could, which for both nurses was in the ICU.

“When we needed to go into a room and we needed to help, we had to take that second and make sure we were covered up and then we went,” McAfee said.

The two said one of the hardest parts about the trip was telling their loved ones that everything was going well when they knew there was a huge health risk working in that environment.

“I had to call my girlfriend and say this is my last will and testament,” Heavrin said. “If I don’t make it home, you let them know that it was okay from the beginning, that I always knew that.”

The two women are now back in Kentucky after arriving home Wednesday. For the next 14 days, they will be staying together in an apartment and isolating themselves from everyone else. They said during this time together, they will be writing down their experiences and stories, which they hope to self-publish and eventually use to raise funds that will be donated to help with the relief efforts

While they are also eager to get back to work, and more importantly, to huge their loved ones again, they also want to share their experience working in New York City with the local healthcare community, hoping their newfound knowledge can help protect and serve both patients and healthcare professionals here at home.

“What we saw, the experiences that we had makes us completely capable to walk into that again and say this is exactly what we need to do,” Heavrin said.

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