When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called for medical workers around the country to come help fight the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), more than 25,000 people from other states rushed to volunteer — including one woman from Somerset.
Leslie Chambers, a nurse practitioner with Lake Cumberland Surgery Specialists, is expected to come home this week after nearly a month in what has become the American epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. In New York City alone, there have been nearly 167,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases over the past two months. It's the first time she has traveled any distance to offer medical care.
"After seeing the devastation to the healthcare system New York, I felt a calling to help in any way possible," Chambers said. "…My background in critical care nursing along with huge nursing shortage in New York, made the decision to sign up as a registered nurse very easy."
The nurse practitioner got her opportunity through a company called Krucial Staffing, which is working with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) to staff 14 hospitals in New York. She called on Good Friday, spent Saturday packing for her flight and spending as much time as possible with husband and three daughters, and flew to New York City on Easter Sunday.
"It all went very quickly," Chambers said. "When I got to New York, the streets were very empty. It was quite eerie to see a city typically bustling with activity so vacant."
Chambers was assigned to the 20-bed medical surgical ICU (intensive care unit) at Metropolitan Hospital in East Harlem, working the night shift from 7:30 p.m. to 8 a.m. She said that the regular nursing staff have been "extremely appreciative to have more help — having been reduced to 2-3 for each shift.
"They were all physically and mentally exhausted," Chambers said. "The other staff had either quit or fallen ill themselves. All patients on this unit are on ventilators. Very few do not have COVID."
It's not just Chambers' temporary coworkers who show their gratitude. She spoke of one man who stands outside Metropolitan every day, thanking the staff going in and calling them angels for what they do, with tears in his eyes.
"It truly makes me feel like God has placed us all where we need to be to do his work," Chambers said. "I later found out that this man’s wife was among the first to pass away from COVID in this hospital. He stands out there to give thanks because the staff was with her when he couldn’t be.…
"The patients with this virus have been extremely ill. I thought I had mentally and emotionally prepared for what I would see," she continued. "I was not prepared. The patients are some of the sickest people I have ever cared for. They are not just the older population with comorbid disease; they are 30- and 40-year-olds with children at home. It is heartbreaking to watch this virus destroy their bodies. There has been little, treatment wise, that has improved the outcome. The healthcare providers are terrified of being overwhelmed with patients again if they decide to begin opening the city."
The situation is such that, according to Chambers, several other hospital unites have been converted into makeshift ICUs. Luckily Metropolitan has been able to provide staff with adequate PPE (personal protective equipment) in accordance with CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommendations.
"There is an ER nurse who brings about face shields and extra N95s," Chambers said. "His wife has been an advocate for proper PPE and he said she spends hours on the phone each day to get donations for PPE. That being said, there are not enough negative pressure rooms for the patients. We do keep the doors closed but that is not enough. I try to be as careful as possible. I also have a lot of prayers going up on my behalf so that gives me peace."
Lake Cumberland Regional Hospital (LCRH) CEO Robert Parker called Chambers their "on-the-ground reporter" from the epicenter's frontlines. “Leslie’s dedication to her calling is evident," he stated. "Her decision to travel to the national hotspot for COVID-19 and care for the people of NYC is incredibly admirable, but also indicative of all of our team members’ generosity and care for others."
Chambers joined the Somerset hospital in 2010 as an ICU registered nurse, then transferred about a year later to the LCRH's cardiovascular unit to be an open heart recovery nurse. After completing her MSN (master of science in nursing) degree with a specialty in acute care, she joined General Surgery as an APRN (Advanced Practice Registered Nurse) about three years ago — currently working with Drs. Tommy Shelton and Ben Stivers.
"From a very young age, I’ve always felt compelled to work in the medical field," Chambers said. "This desire was solidified when my father had a construction accident during my sophomore year of high school. My sisters and I helped our mother care for him at home. He was completely dependent on others for his care. While most teens were socializing, we were learning to do tracheostomy care and administer tube feedings."
While she's been needed in New York, Chambers knows her family needs her too.
"I miss my family," she said. "They are sacrificing along with me. They know that I’m putting my health at risk by fighting on the frontlines. They have been so supportive of my decision and it is heartwarming to know they understand that we have to put others before ourselves in times like this."
Chambers' support system also includes her "work family," who have also been showering her with prayers from home. She particularly credits the surgeons for their support as well as her great friend and co-worker, Madisyn Epperson PA-C, who has stepped up to take care of Chambers' share of the work at Lake Cumberland Regional.
“It’s hard to put into words the depth of care and compassion Leslie has for her patients," Dr. Stivers said. "She’s deeply devoted to patient care and always goes the extra mile, no matter the situation. I’m very proud of her desire to be not only on the front lines, but be in the area most heavily hit by the current pandemic. I’m even more proud to call her a friend and a colleague. I hope she, and her family, know how appreciative we all are of the sacrifice being made to help others in need, and we will all be ready to have her back home.”
“When I learned of Leslie going to the epicenter of COVID in NYC, I was a little surprised at first," Dr. Shelton added. "But that surprise was quickly replaced with the comfort in knowing that she is very smart, hard working, and has always enjoyed a challenge. Hopefully she has been able to use the great critical care skills we all know she has. We pray daily for God to protect her and that the lucky patients of NYC that will get a small sample of the excellent care she can provide. We will welcome her back with open arms!”
When she comes home, Chambers won't be going directly back to work. Like everyone returning from out of state, she'll have to quarantine for 14 days. "The first thing I plan to do when I get home is hug and kiss my family, after I shower, change, and put on a mask of course," she said. "After that...sleep!!! The mental and physical exhaustion is indescribable.…
"This experience has taught me that we have to all be there for each other. We have to lend a helping hand when we can, even when that pushes us outside of our comfort zone. The people of New York have shown so much gratitude. I have made friends that I know will last a lifetime."