coronavirus

Travel Nurse Recalls Impact Fighting COVID-19 in NYC had on her Career

Janelle Orbon said she was struck by the people from different areas of medicine that came to help with the pandemic response. (Photo: Janelle Orbon)

by Alexandra Moyen

WINDSOR TERRACE — Janelle Orbon, a critical care nurse from Denver, was one of the many out-of-town nurses saving lives in New York. The gravity of her time in New York City is still taking its toll and has changed Orbon’s outlook on nursing.

“I immediately, upon returning, I talked to my boss about transitioning back into critical care full time and I’m doing that now,” she said.

Since the Department of Health and Human Services allowed medical professionals to travel across state lines to help patients affected by the pandemic back in March, there have been roughly 4,000 travel nurses sent to New York.

“Watching things unfold on TV, it actually was a no-brainer, that’s where I needed to be. I was fully trained and wanted to help and would have felt much worse not being there,” said Orbon.

Orbon left Denver thinking she’d be in New York for six weeks. She stayed for three months. What she learned is that medical professionals still don’t know enough about the deadly virus.

“We don’t know what we’re up against. I don’t think anyone knows a ton about COVID,” Orbon said.

According to the NYC health department, as travel nurses were being called to New York in mid-March, the number of people who were hospitalized for COVID-19 skyrocketed from 359 to 1,115 in one week. On April 6, the number of hospitalized patients peaked at 1,724.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called for more nurses before the spike in coronavirus cases due to a statewide shortage of healthcare workers. Cuomo offered accelerated “recertification on an emergency basis” for former nurses and doctors to assist the current workforce with the pandemic response. His administration also sent letters to medical and nursing schools asking for additional help.

When Orbon arrived in New York City at the end of March, it was the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis. She wasted no time resuming her role as a critical care nurse, a position she held for five years in Denver.

“When I first got to New York, it was the thick of it, that’s when there were still field hospitals across the street, every floor of our hospital had become a giant ICU,” Orbon said.

What struck Orbon wasn’t how many nurses came from other areas of the country, but other areas of medicine to do everything they could to save lives.

“Nurses from pediatrics from obstetrics, oncology, stepped up into roles that normally take a nurse years to master and train for,” Orbon said.

Registered nurses, nurse practitioners, physician’s assistants, and respiratory therapists were among the many travel nurses sent to hospitals throughout New York. Now that the rate has been on the decline — as of August 23, there were only 472 hospitalizations reported — travel nurses have started to return home. Now back at home in Denver, Orbon says her city has things under control since a spike on April 24, when 122 people died.

While out-of-town nurses have received a lot of the credit for fighting the virus in New York City, Orbon says the nurses who were there before the pandemic stood out.

“We were almost out of ventilators and the nurses on my old ICU unit said they would stay after work and manually bag breaths into patients,” she said. “These are the true heroes.”

Her experience has taught her that what’s certain in the fight against COVID-19 is the unknown, and she says she would come back in a heartbeat if needed.

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