Wyckoff Hospital is in Brooklyn, New York, and Amy has had a busy week after being named as one of the 100 Influential People in 2020 by Time Magazine. Her image graces the cover, representing the heroism of nurses and other frontline workers. Time chose her as an individual who seized the moment to save lives. The list reflects the pulse of society and life in these extraordinary times. Amy was interviewed by Dr. Esther Joseph Pottoore, DNP, RN, a New York nurse working in the South Bronx in a Primary Care clinic.
An Interview with Amy
Esther: Thank you Amy for calling me on your break and consenting to this interview! Let me know when you have to go back to work!
Amy: You are welcome! I will let you know when my break is over.
Esther: How long have you been a nurse?
Amy: Since 1992 (28 years) and 19 years in the Emergency Room at Wyckoff Heights Medical Center.
Esther: Where did you study Nursing?
Amy: In New York at BMCC - Borough of Manhattan Community College in the downtown area of Manhattan.
Esther: What degree did you get?
Amy: I have an Associates Degree in Nursing!
Esther: Where were you before you came to New York?
Amy: I was born in San Jose, California. My family moved all of us to Baton Rouge, Louisiana where we grew up after my dad retired from the Navy. I came to New York after high school.
Why did you become a nurse?
Esther: Did you always want to be a nurse? What sparked your interest?
Amy: I remember vividly when my dad was in the hospital he was very sick and dying and how the nurses took care of him. I was in awe of them, watching them - which now I realize are IV drips, ventilators and how they maneuvered to manage them was amazing. That's when I knew In my heart, that's what I wanted to do in life.
Esther: Tell me something the world doesn’t know about you!
Amy: Well pretty much everyone I know knows the family's passion; my passion is the water. We have to be close to water at all times. We have a pool in the back yard; we love to swim.
I am an avid surfer. I love to surf! I have been surfing since my twenties and am self-taught. At least twice a year we would drive to the Gulf of Mexico to the Florida Panhandle to surf - one of my favorite beaches. And when we're in New York, we try to get to Long Beach Island (LBI) which is in New Jersey at least once a week to surf with the whole family, my partner Tiffany and the three kids, Summer who is five, Kali who is 11, and Ocean who is 13.
Esther: That’s impressive! I am afraid of swimming!
Amy: Really? I love the water! Even in the cold months, I want to be in the water and the kids do too - just sitting on the beach during the cold weather makes us happy.
First Encounter with COVID-19
Esther: Let's talk about the pre-COVID days in New York. Did your hospital or ED make any special preparations or educational sessions to get ready?
Amy: I think like most everyone we were unsure of what was coming our way or what to expect. We talked about it, but on the day of a very large group huddle in the emergency room, we were talking about the Coronavirus and the precautions that we needed to take. At that point, we weren't sure that the first COVID patient in Brooklyn was in our ER in an isolation room. That was the day that I took care of the first suspected COVID case.
Esther: Tell me more about that case. What do you remember?
Amy: What I remember most is she was super sweet, and I sat in her room and talked to her for the longest time. She told me she had traveled to the Philippines in late January and returned in late February. She wasn't feeling great during the last two weeks of February. It was the beginning of March when she arrived in our ER, feeling tired and weak, with no fever. She was in the main ED for over 8 hours.
Esther: At what point did you suspect COVID?
Amy: Actually one of the ER attendings suspected it as the chest x-ray confirmed an abnormal pneumonia - a pattern of pneumonia that is rarely seen up until now, which we now know is COVID pneumonia. She died 10 days later. She was the first COVID death reported in New York State.
Amy's Personal Battle with COVID
Esther: I heard that you then got sick. What happened?
Amy: I remember the day our first COVID patient entered the ER there were talks of possible quarantines for any staff members who came in contact, even though we were all asymptomatic at that point. The following day myself along with a doctor and six or seven other nurses were asked to quarantine themselves, which we did. There was a lot of anxiety with all of us with the unknown and fears that went along with this.
I remember each one of us talking every day about how we were feeling and about any symptoms that we may have had. That was a great support system that we all shared with each other. As far as myself, I think I was just feeling tired and fatigued.
About three days later, I noticed I was feeling winded. I was searching for a place close to home to just be tested. It was very difficult to find that test, but at that point, I started to feel short of breath, so I called the administrator on duty at Wyckoff, and she told me, "We will have a room ready for you. Please come! We will take care of you."
So, I hopped in my jeep drove to the hospital, and found myself in an isolation room, where on a daily basis I saw and took care of patients before. It was very odd to be on the other side.
Thereafter, it was becoming more difficult for me to breathe. I remember one of the ER residents coming into the room, gowned up with his PPE's. He placed me on a BiPAP as my fellow coworkers sat outside the room watching and crying with worry.
I was taken up to ICU pretty quickly where the ER attending told me that I had Pneumonia, which shocked me to hear that news. I was intubated soon thereafter. I was then transferred to another hospital in Long Island where I was in ICU for a few more days until I was extubated 4 days later, and soon I was discharged home to recover.
Esther: Were you out a long time?
Amy: I remember the first week was the worst week of my life. I felt horrible; there's no comparison to anything I've ever felt before. The second week was a little better. The third week was even better and then soon after that, I return to work.
Esther: The pandemic was kicking in at that time. That must have been tough!
Amy: I don't know if tough is a good word it was just something in all of us that made us want to go to work and help. I remember my partner, Tiffany, calling me before I returned to work telling me that they were COVID patients and that it was busy. Each day more and more patients would arrive at the emergency room with COVID-related symptoms. At that point, when I returned to work, 98% of the patients who entered the emergency room were COVID patients. As I and the staff members watched, the emergency room started to overextend itself.
We actually made the pediatric emergency room a makeshift ICU unit where there were intubated patients. Every floor was an ICU with COVID patients. At that point, they built a makeshift patient treatment area in the lobby of the hospital where we could take care of at least 20 other patients who were stable when they entered the hospital but had COVID-related symptoms.
Esther: How did you cope in the ED?
Amy: What I found is that we've all become closer and more trusting of each other. We worked as a group helping each other out as much as we could. We just did what we had to. Everyone helped! Security guards were gowned-up in their PPE's, helping us in every way they could, even making beds. The clerks and technicians were out on the floor helping us do whatever they could do. Administrators who normally wear suits and skirts and the CEO put their scrubs on, geared up, and helped us in the emergency room every single day during this crisis.
Esther: Did other staff get sick with COVID?
Amy: I don't know the exact number, but there were many nurses, doctors, technicians, and clerks who became sick but also returned to work soon after their recovery.
Esther: Did you lose any of your coworkers?
Amy: There were five staff members in the hospital who did not work in the emergency room who unfortunately passed from COVID-related issues.
Coping with the After-Effects of COVID
Esther: So sorry to hear that. I know this has stressed us all out. What has been the effect on you post COVID?
Amy: You know, at first I found myself with insomnia, feeling restless; I wasn't able to focus and feeling very antsy. I thought it was because I wasn't able to go to the gym because the gyms had been closed during the pandemic. Before the pandemic, I would go to the gym during my lunch break for one hour and return to work.
While I wasn't sure what I was experiencing, I thought I was just tired. But I soon realized one day I was having a panic attack while I was working which I've never had in my life. After I came back out on the floor, I was talking to the pharmacist about how I felt and he told me he also has had panic attacks and feels very anxious post-COVID. Then I started asking questions to the other nurses about how they were feeling, and they all agreed that they have anxiety now which they all say they've never had before up until now.
Then I reached out to a therapist who specializes in PTSD. Now I am going to therapy, which has been my savior. My partner, Tiffany, also started going to therapy. During all this, we have had each other to talk to about what we went through each day. This has been a wonderful support for each one of us because no one on the outside understood what we were feeling or seeing outside of the hospital setting.
Esther: I see that in some of my coworkers who tested positive too! How are you normally?
Amy: Yeah, testing during the crisis was frustrating for most of us. We were unsure of the results and it was hard for us to find somewhere to be tested. I am normally funny, outgoing, silly. I love to joke around with the patients to try to make their visit to the emergency room not so serious and fearful for them.
Esther: What are you doing to cope?
Amy: It was a slow recovery. I didn't feel really like doing much just laying around, which is something I never do. I slowly started meditating and doing some yoga at home. The gyms have reopened so going to the gym during my lunch break. A big part of this recovery is therapy
Esther: I would say having no traffic while going to and fro work was great! I have to confess I was way over the speed limit and I reached work in 15 minutes! No traffic in New York was really good! The one positive of COVID times!
Amy: Yes, traffic in New York was horrible. One of the good things about this pandemic was there was no one on the road but frontline workers which was great. Travel was less stressful, less tiring, and less time-consuming. However, what I've noticed now is that people are returning to work, and I see a lot of aggression on the roads and people in a hurry to get somewhere.
Esther: During the height of the pandemic what did you see that was concerning to you?
Amy: What concerned me most was being safe. We're in our PPE's, but how are we going to keep our family at home safe? So we changed our entire homecoming to taking our clothes off in the garage, putting them in a separate bin. Shoes are outside in a separate area. We would walk up through the garage, which we've never done before. No one was allowed to talk to us, no one was allowed to touch us, not even the dogs, and we can go right to the shower. We were sure to wipe down the insides of our jeeps, our phones, and our IDs from work.
Dealing with Lack of PPEs
Esther: How about PPEs?
Amy: PPE's were given to us, however, the hospital could not keep up with the demand in the outpouring of patients that entered our emergency room on a daily basis. And then our savior, Melanie. We were lucky because Melanie from an organization called International Medical Response started an ongoing Emergency Supply Cabinet Project, initially funded by a GoFundMe page. They were angels and got us supplies throughout the pandemic! They hand-delivered them to us outside the emergency room throughout the Pandemic. The surge was from March 2020 to June 2020.
Home and Family
Esther: How did your family take all this?
Amy: Well, thankfully, Tiffany is a nurse in the same emergency room where I work, so we were able to figure this out as a couple. However, our entire routine changed with the 3 kids, 3 dogs and 3 cats. They were used to us coming home and sitting at the table and talking about our day with then and how their day was. We would play with the dogs and the cats, but now it's come to going right to the shower and going right to bed. That's now the new normal for us.
Esther: I think you are missing fish and birds!
Amy: Well we did have a fish tank, but it was a lot of work along with three kids, three dogs, and three cats. We thought about birds, but we were afraid the kitties would bother the birds.
One of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People 2020
Esther: This has been a rough year for both of you! Despite all this, you were chosen by Time Magazine! How did that happen?
Amy: That was by chance! I happened to go on my day off to protest alongside my colleagues in front of the hospital about the scarcity of PPEs. There was a lot of media and I was talking to them. The CEO of the hospital who is a very nice man came with a reporter from Time and recommended that he talk to me. Since I was still at work, we talked later when he called me and I was off work. The hospital later allowed cameras in the ED and they saw the team in action in and out of work. They even followed us home! That’s going to be a documentary that will come out at some point. Later on, I found out that I was nominated and then later named as one of the 100! They came for a photoshoot!
Esther: What was your first reaction?
Amy: I said, “You gotta be ****ing kidding me!” I curse a lot!
Esther: How did it make you feel?
Amy: Happy. This is for the entire team and not just me! There are staff that have been to hell and back. Their stories have not been told, mine was. Ever since this was announced on ABC Network, the phones have not stopped ringing! I got interviewed by major networks and I heard that Ellen DeGeneres might be calling!
Esther: That’s definitely exciting! What’s happening in the ED now?
Amy: We are beginning to see patients with pneumonia, cough, positive D-Dimers, and a negative chest x-ray. We are isolating them and getting them COVID tested. The numbers are increasing. We are also seeing a lot of stress-related issues like PTSD, aggression, overdose, suicides, and stabbings.
Advice for Nurses
Esther: What is your advice for healthcare workers especially nurses?
Amy: Wear your PPEs. Do not take off your N95 mask. Do not rub your eyes or bite your nails. Maintain social distancing at work and at home. I am homeschooling my kids till this is over.
Esther: Did you think about family, death, spirituality, or faith during these times?
Amy: I do not have a particular faith. I believe in Karma. Good Karma begets good actions and auras. I did and still worry about the kids. What if anything happens to us? We have no family here in NY. I try not to think too much about it. I also was worried about getting targeted for wearing scrubs. I always wore and still wear my mask when I am out in public. Life is so fragile. You have to live every moment because soon it may be gone!
Esther: Do you have any final words for new nurses?
Amy: Just be honest and be yourself!
Congratulations and Thank You
Esther: Thank you for being the Face of Nursing 2020. Congratulations on making it in the list of the 100 most influential people in the world. It’s an honor for all nurses in the International Year of the Nurse! Have a wonderful and safe day and thank you for all you do!
Amy: Thank you and be safe!
As we wrapped up part 2 of her interview, she was driving home in her baby blue jeep with the top down! I could hear shouted congratulations from regular people who recognized her on the street! Amy’s response was a typical New Yorker’s response.
“Yo! Thanks, man!”
Let the Diamond Within Shine
To all my nursing colleagues! Let's take a page from the Harley motorcycle riding, avid surfer RN Amy O’Sullivan, and ride the next wave of life with confidence! Like her, let's treat each other and our patients with kindness. Let us be the light that shines brightly in the dark and the source of comfort in a time of need for others. Like Amy, let the diamond within shine!
Dr. Esther Joseph Pottoore, DNP, RN