Brent Whitaker, MS, MSN, RN, is a cardiovascular ICU nurse manager at the Cleveland Clinic who traveled to NYC to help COVID-19 patients.
In April, the Cleveland Clinic sent 15 nurses and 10 physicians to New York City, which at that time was the epicenter of the medical crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic. The team spread out across several hospitals, prepared to help both critically ill patients and drained staff members. In this Spotlight, we’ve switched gears to speak with Brent Whitaker, MS, MSN, RN, a cardiovascular ICU nurse manager, about the experience.
Why did you decide to go?
My decision was really based on the fact that Ohio prepped early for COVID-19. Governor DeWine went ahead and put us on restriction in March, and then the Clinic prepared over a period of 3 weeks for the potential onslaught of COVID-19 patients that we thought we could be facing. That early shutdown and the training that we had put in place left us all feeling very prepared, but without COVID-19 patients to treat. At the same time, calls were continuously coming in from New York for help. I was offered the opportunity to go with a very skilled and prepared team, and it was important to me to help. All of us who went had a great desire to be of assistance not only to the patients, but to the overworked nurses and doctors there, as well. Just watching through the media what was unfolding in New York, we could see the fatigue on the nurses faces before we got there. Work fatigue is something that we've all experienced at some time or another. The fact that it had been going on for so many weeks was a big pull on all of us to want to help our fellow man and our fellow nurses.
What did you take away from the experience?
Arriving when we did in April, we missed the peak of the COVID-19 experience by about 3 weeks. What we learned from those who went through it was that it happened incredibly fast. The hospitals and staff got inundated, and even once things started to let up a bit and we arrived, the nurses we encountered were physically and mentally still recovering from the strain of caring for so many severely ill and dying patients day after day. So, our initial thoughts about going there to help our fellow nurses were validated. By being there, I think we helped provide a kind of stability that came from not experiencing the things that they had. We were still able to think about our jobs and responsibilities the way that we've always thought about them. We had not had to suddenly change our thinking or our work flow regarding patient care. Even though we're not from the area and we have different patient care regimens in certain cases than they do, the experience left us feeling confident that we have the preparation and the readiness that we can bring in to help others. A big takeaway for me personally was that the residual strain of working through a COVID-19 wave hangs around among the nurses much longer than you might think it would, and that those nurses need support even after the worst is over.
At home, you’re the nurse manager of a surgical ICU. What did you do while in New York?
My role was blended a little bit in that I helped care for patients, but I also did some administrative work organizing schedules, ensuring that the team was getting the services that they needed, including some additional in-depth training for specific aspects of COVID-19 patient care. The main change to our normal roles was that in the new COVID-19 conditions we try and coordinate all of our care into very succinct timeframes, so that you're not just walking in and out of the same patient room multiple times during the day. When you go into the room, you get as much done as possible each and every time. If there's something small that could be put off until the next time you come back into the room, you make a note to do that. I had to change my thought process and remind myself of that: “I don't want to keep reentering this room unless I need to.”
How did your group help out with the staffing issues that the hospitals were facing?
By adding us to existing staff at the hospital where I was assigned, they were able to send a group of their own highly trained nurses to another hospital in their system that was going through a higher COVID-19 peak. So, we offset that loss of staff by bringing in a high caliber of nurses to cover for them. Despite that, they were still so overwhelmed that they continued to need to utilize their own nontraditional, non-ICU-trained staff to work in COVID-19 units.
Although you had prepared before you went, the situation in New York was dire and could not have been easy to step into. How did you all handle the enormity of that?
Caring for patients day in and day out, I think we were as prepared as we could be to work in a place that was not our traditional hospital setting. We knew going in that it was going to be rough. That being said, patient mortality is a big part of the conversation I have when I'm hiring nurses. You have to have resiliency, as well as a good plan for yourself for dealing with the stress. It’s not only the stress of the day-to-day. Stress compounds, and it’s important to be cognizant of that. My team did a great job. While in New York, we still got together at least once a week to have a “family” dinner and talk it out. Ensuring that every single one of my nurses was coping well was a priority at all times. We were ready for the skill set that was needed there, and we did have conversations before we even set foot in the units in terms of things we were prepared to do and were expecting to see.
But being prepared doesn’t mean that you’re going to just do your job and go home and have no effects from the experience. In fact, many of us felt stress afterward in response to the change in our situations back home. When we left, Ohio had been locked down for just over a month and on the day we left NY, the city was starting to open a few things. Ohio stayed in isolation for another month or so after we returned. It was sort of jarring to come back to Ohio and not have a “normal” to come back to; everyone there was mostly accustomed to the setting, so we felt an uneasiness we did not have prior to leaving.
How did your family handle the decision for you to go, knowing you would be gone for several weeks?
When I first brought it up and said I was thinking I wanted to do this, we discussed it as a family. Naturally, they were all a little apprehensive at first, but their support was unwavering. My wife was super understanding through the whole process and fully backed my decision because of how great the need was in New York. My kids were great, too. They really stepped up and helped out around the house where they were needed. Staying in contact through phone calls and FaceTime, and sharing text messages, helped me a lot. I always felt plugged in to what was going on at home, and that made it possible for me to do this. Having their support really meant a lot to me and I can’t emphasize that enough.