Jasmin Dinanath
Credit...Sinna Nasseri

‘Patients Have Panic in Their Eyes’: Voices From a Covid-19 Unit

Nurses from N.Y.U. Langone Health describe the toll the coronavirus is taking on their patients, and on themselves.

David Gonzalez and

There is little respite for the nurses working with coronavirus patients at N.Y.U. Langone Health.

Inside the recently opened Kimmel Pavilion in Manhattan, hundreds of patients rest in rooms designed to minimize infection. When the nurses do take a break, a soundtrack of wailing sirens reminds them what lies ahead on their return.

On March 10, N.Y.U.’s medical center had just two coronavirus patients. Today, patients are spread over every floor of both Kimmel and nearby Tisch Hospital, said Robert Magyar, a hospital spokesman. The medical staff is weary, but many said they were relieved to have the supplies and protective gear that are in short supply at so many other institutions.

“There are days where you feel great and ready to conquer the world, and there are days where you break down and feel really vulnerable,” said Gabrielle Barshay, a senior staff nurse at Kimmel whose floor was the first to accept coronavirus patients. “It’s just difficult seeing these patients. A lot of them are alone, and they don’t have their families. Sometimes it’s a lot of burden on one nurse.”

For now, this tight-knit group of mostly 20-something nurses has each other, sharing the emotional burden of working, hoping and waiting.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

ImageAmanda Talmadge takes a brief break.
Credit...Sinna Nasseri

It feels like a year already, like one long day that’s never-ending.

I’ve never had more anxiety in my entire four years of nursing. I feel like I’m a new nurse again. You’re constantly on edge, your adrenaline is always pumping, you really don’t know what’s going to happen next. Overall, I think we’re just scared.

I change into normal clothes when I leave work, which I never did before. Now I won’t even bring my scrubs inside my house. They literally sit in my backyard and they go to a laundromat. I don’t even wash my scrubs inside my house anymore. I don’t even wear the same shoes home, my shoes from work stay at work.

When people are visibly scared of us because we’re nurses, it’s kind of upsetting. It’s hard because you kind of get where they’re coming from. But at the same time we’re putting our lives at risk everyday and we’re doing our best we can for you. It’s a little insulting.

Credit...Sinna Nasseri

I have not seen my dad, who is diabetic, ever since our unit became Covid. It’s scary knowing that with my direct exposure, I could potentially be inflicting this virus on one of my family members who would get really sick from it. I think it’s a tough spot to put anyone in.

The patients have panic in their eyes. Along with the anxiety that comes with not being able to have adequate oxygen and breathe, comes that panic of them saying, “Am I going to die? Am I ever going to see my family again?” It’s very emotional for them and for us.

To think about having to have this lifestyle for a full year, it would be very difficult.

Credit...Sinna Nasseri

I do hear concerns about racism from my mom and my dad especially. When this whole thing started and they were hearing all these stories about racism that was happening in the subways and the streets, they were more afraid of that than the infection itself. Which kind of prevented them from stepping outside.

My family and their friends, their community of Korean-Americans, are essential workers. They open up the laundromats and the dry cleaners in the city. So they have to go to work, they have to take public transportation, and they get dirty looks from all these people.

At this point I’m just trying to numb my feelings. My brain is so focused on work that I don’t have the capacity in myself to think about the future of how I’m dealing with it in my home. I try to numb my feelings as much as I can and honestly just focus on work.

Credit...Sinna Nasseri

I have four kids I have to go home to. I can’t be separated. I’m still breastfeeding my daughter, and it’s a lot of wear and tear on my body on top of me working the night shift taking care of these really sick patients. And I’m worn out, but I have to keep going. I can’t just give up on being a nurse.

This morning a patient was really sick, and she’s dying alone and here I have to make the choice of whether or not I take an extra 10 minutes in the room with my P.P.E. on holding her hand, or just letting her die alone. I’m a nurse for 12 years now. It didn’t sit well with me to have her die alone and not have any family near her. It’s been a really hard thing for a lot of us. These patients are really on their own and they’re counting on the nurses and doctors to make decisions for them.

I don’t ever really cry because we’re taught to separate work and family. But sometimes it just gets [to be] too much. This morning I looked up and the doctor resident was bawling, crying in his mask, and I started crying and the other nurse started crying. We’re all human, you know, there’s only so much we can take.

Credit...Sinna Nasseri

The Covid-19 pandemic is our generation’s defining moment.

The mood quickly changed from “this is a health scare” to “this is something that is going to define who we are as health care workers in this generation.” We knew that this was going to become a war. It is kind of, in a mental sense, a war, because it really has become something that day in and day out is a battle to keep these patients safe and keep them healthy from such an aggressive virus.

While at one end we’re stressed, we’re anxious, we’re working our hardest to keep people safe and stable, the reflective part of me says, once this is said and done we can say that we were part of a collective force that overcame something huge. We were the ones that answered the call.

Credit...Sinna Nasseri

I was there the first day. It was my first day back from vacation. It was very hard, because this is not something we’ve dealt with before. As a new nurse, it’s very scary each time you get something you’ve never had before. As you go on, you kind of get your footing and you kind of understand “OK, pneumonia, I’ve seen this before, I know how to handle this.”

Then here comes coronavirus. And we don’t really know what this is. So from a nursing standpoint it’s scary, because each day you come in and the protocol has changed. And you’re trying to catch up and trying to treat your patients the best you can.

What are we going to do if all the health care workers get sick? Who’s going to take care of anyone when health care workers go down because they didn’t have the proper supplies and equipment? I did not think our country would be running out of supplies. You look at pictures of nurses in other countries, and they’re in full hazmat suits, and then to hear stories about, you know, a nurse wearing a trash bag to protect herself, I mean that’s dystopian.

Credit...Sinna Nasseri

I hit my sixth month working as a nurse at the beginning of March. So, I am still very new to all this. It’s interesting to know that right now I’m experiencing something that hopefully I won’t ever experience again in my work as a nurse. But I’ve seen a debate in the nursing community where some people say “This is what we signed up for, this is what is expected of us.”

To some extent, yes.

But on the flip side I think that not having the right supplies, that is not what we signed up for.

Having a national or global shortage of supplies and equipment is something I didn’t foresee happening. It seems like no one really did. But now that it’s happened it seems like we should have been prepared for something like this.

We were learning in nursing school about disaster preparedness, different emergency protocols and stuff. And I thought “Oh, OK, we have to learn about this, whatever, this isn’t going to be something that I really use.” I didn’t really take it that seriously. And now here I am a year later in the middle of it.

Credit...Sinna Nasseri

I’m an oncology nurse, so building a rapport with my patient and making them feel good and distracting them from their disease is something I’m used to. Now, I go into the room and I’m rushed to get out. I don’t feel like I’m fully there for the patient, and I feel like that’s taking a toll on my nursing.

On a regular day I always ask the patient, “Where are you from, where’s your family from?” I would always talk to the families. Now when the patient asks me to stay and I end up having to stay in the room longer, I almost get angry. How are they not understanding that they’re risking my life? I hate that feeling because it’s not who I am.

Part of nursing is compassion, and I feel like because of the virus a lot of us are starting to lose that a bit and it’s very scary.

It breaks my heart, because I just want to hang out with you for a little bit longer and hold your hand, but I really shouldn’t.

Credit...Sinna Nasseri

I feel really grateful for the people that I work with, for the place where I work. And feel very strongly about my team, they’re really capable of a lot of things. Strong, smart individuals, very resilient.

I think that if we make it through this we’re definitely always going to remain a part of each other’s lives. These are uncertain, very difficult times that we’re going through, and it matters who’s with you during these moments.

I’m not seeing my 2-year-old son, so that part has been really difficult. I would never want to put my child at risk. I FaceTime him everyday, but my mom sometimes thinks it’s not such a great idea, because then he walks around the house calling my name and looking for me. Sometimes I think that maybe it’s easier if I let him forget about me, but I don’t know how long this whole situation is going to last, and I don’t want him to forget me.