CCC&TI Nursing Instructor Joins COVID-19 Fight in NYC

Karen Bell

HUDSON, NC (May 8, 2020) — Karen Bell, a nursing instructor at Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute, admits she was apprehensive about joining the fight against COVID-19 in the country’s most impacted community, New York City. But, the same calling that led her, and so many others, into the nursing profession left her with no choice.

“God was telling me you have what it takes to go up there and do something,” she said. “People think I’m crazy for going, but I was doing the work I was called to do.”

Bell, a Granite Falls native and a graduate of CCC&TI’s nursing program, was hired through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to join thousands of other nurses from across the country to help staff the overwhelmed medical system in New York City. She was assigned to a hospital in Queens, one of the hardest hit areas of the city and the facility treating the worst cases.

Karen in full gear

On April 5, she boarded a plane for a 21-day rotation with other nurses from across the country. A few days later, she reported to her assigned hospital. Working 12-hour night shifts in the adult intensive care unit, nothing could have prepared her for what she’d soon witness.

“I can’t even explain the fear,” she said of her first night on the job with her fellow nurses. “It was unreal what we saw. The ride back to the hotel was complete silence. No one talked about it.”

The situation that no one wanted to talk about was the number of people dying from COVID-19, patients packed into tight quarters, having limited supplies, manpower, and equipment, and, of course, the severity of the virus itself. Even the preparations to go to work were unlike anything she had ever experienced in 17 years of nursing and more than 25 years as a respiratory therapist.

The protective gear for her shifts included an N-95 mask, a second mask covering it, a hair cover, a face shield, two gowns, three pairs of gloves and shoe covers.

“I’ve never sweated so much in my life,” she said. “I had bruises on my nose and cheeks from wearing the masks.”

The worst experiences, Bell said, were the feelings of helplessness as there was no treatment for the worst cases other than tending to the patients’ comfort and, of course, the trauma of witnessing with so many deaths.

“It was a horrific scene that I hope I never experience again,” she said, adding that from shift to shift she often wouldn’t know if her previous patients had gotten better and been transferred to another facility, or if they had died.

CCC&TI Nursing Instructor Karen Bell poses for a photo in New York City with her fellow nurses. Brought in from across the country, the group of nurses worked together on 12-hour nights shifts in one of the hardest hit areas of New York City caring for COVID-19 patients.

But the experience wasn’t all bad. Bell said she and her fellow nurses bonded through music, dancing and humor, which were important coping mechanisms. Bell said there were also moments that kept the nurses motivated amidst such a challenging situation. The mayor of New York City brought dinner for all of the workers during one of her shifts and there were several fire department parades for the hospital workers.

“It made you feel appreciated and it made you feel like ‘I can do this,’” she said.

There also was tremendous joy in the few patients who made it to the recovery phase during her 21 days on the job.

“One recovering patient was taken off the ventilator, and I was able to use FaceTime to call (the patient’s) family and let them know,” she said. “They had no idea if (the patient) was dead or alive.”

She flew back to North Carolina on April 27 and has since been quarantined and isolated to make sure she had not been exposed to the virus. She’s using that time to physically and mentally recover from working daily 12-hour night shifts for 19 of the previous 20 days, she said. Nearing the end of her quarantine, Bell said she hasn’t experienced any COVID-19 symptoms. She hasn’t seen her husband and two young sons for more than five weeks and is excited to see them soon.

“Thank God for Facetime,” she said.

Bell is journaling about her experience and also shared several videos and photos on her personal Facebook page to keep her family, friends and colleagues back home updated on her status.

And when she returns to the classroom at CCC&TI in the Fall, she knows that these experiences will be valuable for her nursing students. The main lesson that she learned, and will plan to share, is that compassion goes a long way, no matter the situation.

Despite the language barriers Bell faced with many of her patients, she learned that fear, sadness and joy translates the same in every language. She plans to share her “war stories” from her experience in New York City with her students, and at the same time, she said, prays they will never have to experience anything like it. But if they do, she knows they will be well-trained and ready for whatever happens.

“Nurses are hardwired that way,” she said.