A Nurse Comes to Brooklyn

She wanted to do something for herself, so she traveled 1,200 miles to care for COVID-19 patients

Nell Freudenberger
Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea

When Donna Flint was a child in Little Rock, she loved science fiction. Her father was a paramedic, then a firefighter, and they watched medical shows like ER together, as well as Star Wars and Star Trek—Flint was especially interested in the futuristic technology used in the sickbay. She grew up wanting to be an E.R. doctor, hoping to work in the most intense part of the hospital and save lives under pressure. Then, she told me, “Life happened.” She got pregnant when she was eighteen and had a daughter, sharpening her life to a hard point. “I was a single mom. I didn’t go to nursing school until later in life. As a single parent raising a child and working, it was—” she hesitated and then laughed, “quite the task.”

Flint decided that she wanted her daughter to go to private school. She worked at Walmart for eight years, starting as a cashier and gradually moving up the ladder to supervise overseas shipping. She was chosen for a management training program, but a friend convinced her to take an inventory control job with better benefits at Dassault Falcon, a private jet manufacturer. In 2008, during the financial crisis, she was laid off, and started putting herself through nursing school, working on the side as a nanny and then a student nurse tech. In school, she said, she fell in love with the heart. “I just liked that system the best of the body. Your body is designed to compensate. In a lot of ways, the body is designed to heal itself. When the heart has issues—if there’s a blocked vessel or something—there’s all these compensatory mechanisms, where the vasculature will reroute to get the heart what it needs, so that it can supply the blood for your body. I just always found those kinds of things fascinating.” She learned cardiac telemetry, which measures a patient’s respiratory rate, oxygen saturation, and the electrical activity of the heart, but it wasn’t only the technology that compelled her. The heart was its own astonishingly complex machine, able to adapt when threatened.

When her daughter Brianna, now nineteen, left Little Rock for college this year, Flint said, “I just felt lost. I’d raised this kid since I was eighteen. And I’d been responsible, and I just felt like: Well, what do I do with myself now?” She’d been thinking about the possibilities, and had considered medical missionary work. She’d always wanted to travel, and although she’d once worked for a luxury aircraft company, she’d never been on a flight herself. Then the pandemic hit, and her daughter returned to Little Rock.

At the end of March, Governor Andrew Cuomo put out a nationwide all-call for doctors and nurses. Normally you need a state license to practice nursing in New York, but the city had waived that requirement for out-of-state nurses because of the crisis, and Flint thought it might be an opportunity. “I’m not a risk taker,” she told me. “I’m a safe bet kind of girl. But I said, you know what? I’m gonna just do it.” She put in an application with a recruiter and got an offer immediately. Her daughter was more than capable of taking care of the house and their dogs while she was gone. Flint said that although she’d gotten used to putting herself last, “This time I just decided to do something for me, that I wanted to do, no matter what whoever thought about it.” The thing she decided to do, for herself, was to come to a Brooklyn hospital and treat patients with coronavirus.

I met Flint one night on the sidewalk outside our house. My husband and I live with our two children half a block from Brooklyn Methodist Hospital in Park Slope, which recently became an arm of NewYork-Presbyterian and has been undergoing an expansion and renovation. Before construction began, some of our neighbors circulated a petition, concerned that our leafy block of brownstones would become a staging area for heavy machinery, the relative quiet shattered by cement mixers and jackhammers. That didn’t sound great to us either, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to sign the petition; the hospital had been so important in our life already. Our son started having episodes of croup as an infant, and got an asthma diagnosis when he was three. He’d been born with a mild form of hemophilia, and the combination of two disorders that might require immediate medical attention at any time made having the hospital so close enormously comforting. We had run him down the block to the pediatric ER in the middle of the night several times. Once, he was admitted, and we spent three nights there. As soon as the 7 p.m. appreciation for healthcare workers started in March, we began going out on our stoop every night to clap.

The kids noticed Flint first, maybe because of her precision timing. She appeared on the block almost every evening between 7 and 7:05. She wore dark blue scrubs, a green surgical mask, and a flowered scarf over her hair, and carried a black-and-white-striped backpack. She was short and compact, with a round, young-looking face, smooth brown skin, and a determined way of walking up the hill. Some of the nurses, and many of the doctors, pass by without looking; they seem very tired or sometimes embarrassed by the attention. Flint was different. You could tell she was smiling, even underneath the mask. She was like a celebrity to the children: “There she is!” they cried, as soon as we spotted her down the block. Sometimes she was on the phone, but she always waved and made eye contact.

We started leaving our stoop and going up to the corner across the street from the hospital, where a small crowd gathered every evening to applaud. Blue buses honked as they went by, the phrase “I [heart] New York” lit up on their LED screens in place of a destination. One neighbor blew a bugle, another shook a tambourine, and another, who worked for FedEx during the day, enhanced the percussion section with two tennis rackets that he beat on lidded city recycling cans. One night, the kids ran ahead in their masks and pajamas, and I walked next to Flint on the narrow sidewalk, inevitably a little closer than we were supposed to be. She thanked us for clapping; I said it was the least we could do. “Where are you coming from?” I asked. I only meant to inquire about her commute—I was wondering if she had to take the subway to get to the hospital. “I’m here from Little Rock,” she said.

Flint agreed to talk with me about her motivations for coming to Brooklyn, and one morning at 9, after her shift ended, we talked over FaceTime for over an hour. I kept offering to let her go, aware that she’d been up all night, but she wasn’t planning to sleep yet. “I’m a talker,” she said, laughing. “Can you tell?” I realized when we got off that I had forgotten to ask what to me was an important question: arriving in Brooklyn when the city had the highest infection rate of anywhere in the world, going into the ICU—where the normal nurse-to-patient ratio of one to two had ballooned to one to five or even six critically ill patients—was she afraid? I texted her, and she wrote back: “Just being completely honest the first day I saw the ICU I was! Not scared in the sense that I could not do the work. I am confident in my abilities … but I was scared of the course of the disease in the patients. More a fear of the unknown. I don’t think it crossed my mind to be afraid for myself when I looked at all of the people that were extremely sick. I do feel the emotion of it all but I have been told that one of my special talents is staying patient, having a calm demeanor and keeping a level head when situations are very stressful and chaotic. My whole life I have always had to be strong.”

NewYork-Presbyterian had given Flint a choice of a four-, eight-, or thirteen-week contract. She chose the longest. “I can do anything for three months,” she said. She arrived on April 13, at the tail end of the worst devastation. In a hospital that had, prior to COVID-19, typically supported an average of twenty patients on ventilators, there were now six times that number. Flint was sometimes juggling three patients on multiple medications, “just back and forth, back and forth, between hanging things and starting this or that, and then heaven forbid a patient codes.” I asked Flint what happened if two of her patients coded—experienced cardiopulmonary arrest—at the same time, and she said, “Exactly.” Due to the severity of the virus, critical care nurses were in high demand, and the hospital had been forced to hastily train other nurses to support them. Many of them were working overtime; by the time Flint arrived, the hospital had enough personal protective equipment, but during the worst period the nurses had been asked to reuse their soiled masks and gowns. “My first week I was like, Jesus Christ, this is insanity. It was very, very overwhelming.”

Shortly after she arrived, a friend from Little Rock joined her, and the two women shared an apartment on the ground floor of a brownstone that they’d rented through Airbnb. Her friend was working uptown at Columbia Presbyterian, and she said that the other nurses there “kind of suggested that they didn’t wear their badges on the way to work.” Flint’s daughter had read on the internet about attacks on nurses; she’d even heard of a nurse being doused with bleach—an incident that happened in the Philippines—and she was worried about her mom. Flint said, “Some of my friends back home say, ‘I’ve heard that in New York, you all are killing people.’ It’s appalling to think that, but I said, ‘well not at my hospital.’”

In spite of those stories, Flint always got dressed in her scrubs at the apartment and wore her badge on the short walk to the hospital, so that she was ready when she arrived. She worked mostly with the same group of ICU nurses, many of whom had been there through the worst part of the crisis, “showing up to work every day, day in and day out … toughing it out the whole month that this has been going on before all the help started to arrive.” The doctors impressed her too, stepping in to do jobs that normally belonged to nurses, turning a patient in their bed, or bringing them a pillow. At home she acknowledged that she’d known doctors who were high-handed, seemingly too busy to answer questions, but that wasn’t the case here now. “They will jump in and get their hands dirty.”

What if the price of relative normalcy—dad at work, mom present rather than scarily isolated behind a closed bedroom door—was one of them getting seriously ill?

Many of Flint’s patients are intubated, and sedated to keep them comfortable. When they are awake, communication can be hard, because of the tube. Flint remembers one man in particular, notable to everyone in the ICU because he was recovering. None of the communication boards that patients use to convey their needs were available, and so Flint wrote the alphabet on a piece of paper. He made her laugh by asking for chocolate fudge cake, although he’d only just graduated from a feeding tube to applesauce. “Every day I saw a little improvement. It was emotional because he was getting better.” But he was also worried. He talked to Flint about how he’d been away from his job for five weeks already—would it still be there for him when he recovered? Lying in bed for that long, his muscles had atrophied to the point that he could do almost nothing for himself. “His appetite was coming back, but he was really worried about being able to stand, being able to walk and hold things, and just to even move his arms for anything … We had a long moment one morning, he was just in tears, how am I going to get back to doing those things?”

My husband and I
had symptoms of the virus in March, early in its path through the city. I got sick first; it was mostly respiratory. It hurt to inhale, and sometimes I felt so short of breath that I used an albuterol inhaler my doctor had prescribed over the phone. I hadn’t been able to get tested, but my doctor and I were pretty sure I had it. Still, I didn’t quarantine myself from the kids. It just didn’t seem practical.

Soon I became obsessed with the possibility that I might have made a terrible mistake. One weekend morning we finished cleaning up breakfast dishes, and the children were playing a card game on the rug. My husband had just started a new job, and in the current climate, we worried that he could lose it; he needed to be at his computer all the time. I was supervising remote school, cooking, doing the laundry and ignoring the rest of the housework. Every day my husband took a break and took them outside to the park, while I took a nap. The virus hadn’t seemed to target children, or even children with asthma—but what if? What if the price of relative normalcy—dad at work, mom present rather than scarily isolated behind a closed bedroom door—was one of them getting seriously ill? That morning, in a moment of panic, I sank down to a squat on the kitchen floor, next to the chair where my husband was sitting looking at his phone. Hidden from the children by the kitchen table, I started to cry, quietly. My husband looked at me, alarmed. “I’m scared,” I mouthed. Our eight year-old peered through the legs of the table and spotted me. “Why is Mommy crying?” he said.

When Flint’s message appeared on my screen the other day, it occurred to me that bravery doesn’t arrive suddenly, the way it does in movies. You don’t have to wait for an extreme situation to see if you have it. It’s more like a talent, something that you practice over the course of a life. If your life hasn’t asked it of you very often, a demanding moment might make you collapse in fear. But if you’d been strengthening that muscle, training it, courage could be there when you needed it.

Flint had seen the videos of people clapping online, but she said she didn’t believe it was real until her first night in Brooklyn. She heard the noise, and thought a parade might be passing by; she went out to look, and found her landlady on the stoop, “just cheering, and there are people banging on pots and bottles and everything, and I was like, ‘what’s going on?’ And she said, ‘Oh—at 7 o’clock, the streets of Brooklyn we just come to life and celebrate all you healthcare workers.’” The parade, it turned out, was for her.

When Flint said that she was going to Brooklyn, her family thought she was crazy. “Are you having a midlife crisis?” her brother asked. But Flint’s daughter encouraged her to go. A little before seven each evening, she liked to call Brooklyn to hear the people she referred to as her mom’s fan club. Flint calls our block “warrior row,” because the cacophony intensifies as you approach the hospital. “Everybody cheering and rooting for you, like you’re going into this battle and there is all this support for you to go and come back safely.” She said that she didn’t expect the applause, nor had she ever thought there was anything exceptional about her life. But now, she told her daughter, “I feel like a warrior.”

Nell Freudenberger is the author of the novels Lost and Wanted, The Dissident, and The Newlyweds, and the story collection, Lucky Girls.
Originally published:
June 30, 2020


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