By Shane Scoggins
Publisher, Franklin County Citizen Leader
A mission of mercy to help New York City coronavirus patients has led a Franklin County native to come home with warnings for her state.
“Hopefully with someone you know personally who has seen New York, a hot spot and war zone up close, you can listen and trust the words,” nurse Joanna Davis Malcom wrote on her Facebook page recently. “Georgia is potentially right behind and we need to take small action NOW so we will be prepared. Hopefully not, but let’s be prepared. Healthcare workers, as well as people at home. We need action amongst ourselves. Do not wait for leadership to tell you what to do. Decide to do the right thing for your household now.”
Malcom returned last week from working in a New York hospital and seeing up-close the chaos the virus has caused in the city’s healthcare system.
“There were people dying all around you,” she said. “It was a literal war zone.”
Malcom, who works at an outpatient surgery center in Athens, felt led to travel to New York City, which has been hit harder with the virus than any other part of the country.
As of Tuesday, New York City had 68,776 cases of coronavirus and 2,738 deaths. The city’s total represented about one-fifth of the total cases in the U.S. and one quarter of the deaths.
“I just really, really prayed about it,” Malcom said of the decision to go to New York. “It was like God wanted me to go up there.”
Malcom signed on with a company that provides healthcare workers to areas of the country hit with emergencies, like the coronavirus pandemic or Hurricane Katrina.
Once in New York, she was assigned to a 250-bed hospital in the Bronx.
The Bronx, which is less than 15 percent the size of Franklin County geographically, has 13,680 confirmed cases of coronavirus among its 1.5 million residents.
The hospital, which Malcom said was outdated already, was overwhelmed with patients.
She worked in a make-shift intensive care ward set up in a hallway.
Working a 12-hour shift, Malcom described chaos in which nurses looked up videos on Youtube to learn how to do some procedures and doctors with no experience were being forced into service.
At one point, Malcom worked with a dentist to treat patients.
Treatment for these very sick patients fell more and more on the nurses.
“The nurse was the doctor, the anesthesiologist and the respiratory therapist, and the nurse,” Malcom wrote on her Facebook page. “At one point I just went off my patients’ symptoms and pulled drugs to treat her. Guessed her weight and went from there. No doctors’ orders. No time.”
The situation was so dire, Malcom said near the end of her stay, a respiratory therapist told her there were only three ventilators left, with eight patients who needed them.
The therapist told Malcom that she and the other nurses would have to decide who would get the ventilators.
“We are literally asked to be God. You are asked who lives or dies at that point,” Malcom said, adding that a nurse shouldn’t be put in that position. “Nobody ever signed up to be God.”
Malcom and the other nurses had no time to eat or even go to the bathroom during their shifts.
“Lunch break you say? Negative. Nobody even wants to pull a mask down for water because it is EVERYWHERE,” Malcom wrote on Facebook. “Hold your pee because it’s worse trying to properly gown out and waste the gown so hold your pee. You’re not hydrated so luckily you can. Wash your hands 400 more times, then keep people alive for 13 hours. Give the crappiest report of your life bc nobody knows what’s going on except to be a warm body and hands. Again, it is defeating.”
“There were people dying all around you,” Malcom said in an interview after coming home.
The hospital lacked the personal protective equipment needed for the healthcare workers.
Malcom was forced to use the same protective mask for her entire visit. She would take it off at night, put it in a paper bag and then put it back on in the morning.
Under normal situations, masks would be replaced regularly as nurses go from patient to patient.
After her shift, there was exhaustion.
“Degown, wash your hands 36 times AND THINK about what you touch walking out even though your mind is shot. Also add, a migraine, low blood sugar and dehydration to your body. Walk in the rain get on the bus. Wait for your whole team spread out all over the hospital. PRAY you get off the bus around 9 p.m. Mask still on. You have suffocated in a mask almost 16 hours at this point. Come in your hotel room, switch lights on with elbows, clean all the knobs, and switches for the 686 time that day. METICULOUSLY think how to get shoes, clothes and mask off without cross contamination. Run to the shower. Scrub the life off of your skin,” Malcom wrote on Facebook.
What she saw influenced her immediately.
“The PTSD starts after one day,” she wrote on Facebook. “In the night, I could hear people choking around me when I closed my eyes, and the vents going off. I jump out of bed in night sweats my pajamas soaked through to keep someone breathing, only then to see I’m still in my hotel room. This has happened every night. After day two, I learned they are bringing in mental health counselors for the nurses stationed where I am. Understandably so. If you worked just an hour, or a week in some of these facilities there is no way you come back the same, if and when you do come back.”
Malcom returned home to Athens early for fear of getting stuck in New York if travel restrictions were imposed. She said she didn’t want to be there, get sick and have to be put into the same system that she saw in disarray.
“I truly feared for my own life,” she said.
Since returning to Georgia, she has self-quarantined for two weeks because she was exposed to the coronavirus. Malcom said that she was turned down for testing because she has no symptoms.
Malcom came home with a desire to warn people in Georgia to get ready.
While in New York, she asked how the situation got so bad there.
She was told that the hospitals there thought they were ready to handle the problem.
“That’s what those New York people said, ‘Look, we were fine and then all of a sudden, we weren’t,” Malcom said. “When it comes to you, there is nothing you can do. You are stuck.”
She said unless people experience the situation, it is hard to understand.
“It’s unheard of. It’s America,” she said.
She has been interviewed by Fox 5 television in Atlanta about her experience, posted her story on her Facebook page and is working to get the word out however she can.
Malcom worries that people here are not following social-distancing mandates and that even healthcare workers don’t understand what they could be in store for.
“We’re just not taking this serious,” she said.
Malcom is urging all nurses to become familiar with how to operate ventilators and said that hospitals here should triple whatever personal protective equipment supply they have.
While in New York and after returning home, Malcom asked for donations of personal protective equipment.
She plans to return to New York after her quarantine is over and will use the donated equipment. She has also given some of it out to staff members in New York.
“I am going to be so protected,” she said. “People from all over the country sent things and I was able to hand it out to multiple nurses and janitorial staff. People were overwhelmed and cried when we received the supplies. I am so, so grateful.”