Chris Atchison, 24, graduated from Stony Brook University in May and got his first job working as a nurse. Atchison is now on the front lines of a battle against the coronavirus in a large trauma one hospital in Queens—the hardest-hit borough in the city that is the epicenter of the crisis in the U.S.
“In the first year, there is a lot of adjustment and getting used to the lifestyle,” said Atchison. “But no one could have been prepared for this.”
Atchison is faced with long hours, tough conditions and a lack of staff and supplies. Atchison is one of the many heroes fighting every day to bring New Yorkers through this crisis.
While commuting to the hospital, Atchison described over the phone his last shift. “I don’t know if you have seen all those nurses dancing on TikTok,” said Atchison. “Those nurses aren’t in Queens.”
This is an account of a day in the life of a New York City hero.
Atchison wakes up and has a bowl of cereal for breakfast in Little Neck, Queens. Previously, Atchison was staying with his family on Long Island to save money while paying off student loans. Three weeks ago, he moved to an Airbnb in Queens to keep his family safe in case he caught and could transmit the virus.
Atchison leaves his Airbnb for his third overnight shift of the week.
Outside the hospital, the city is cheering for health care workers.
Inside the hospital, almost the entire nursing staff is working. Nurses at the end of their shifts have to stay and inform the incoming nurses about the state of the patients. Almost none of them get the chance to hear the praise.
The nurses Atchison is relieving give him a choice between taking care of two groups of COVID-19 positive/likely positive patients. The first group has eight patients; the second has seven patients that are in worse condition. “I chose the seven sicker patients,” said Atchison.
Atchison is updated on his seven patients and starts working in tandem with another nurse who is taking care of the other eight patients in their unit. Atchison’s accompanied nurse only has four months of experience, making Atchison the senior nurse.
Together, their unit of fifteen patients is in an open room. Some of the patients are divided by curtains, but it is unsafe for either of them to take their N95 masks off. There is the constant sound of alarms beeping alerting doctors and nurses about dropping oxygen levels and other critical vitals.
“It’s pretty apparent that there is just not enough help,” said Atchison. “People’s food trays hadn’t been collected; medication is left out on the tables. It’s a makeshift unit and not the way things are supposed to be, but we are doing the best we can.”
The elastic strap around Atchison’s face mask breaks, leaving his face exposed in the COVID-19 unit. It is the most directly exposed to the virus he has been yet.
Nurses are issued N95 masks, but they are in short supply. “The N95 masks are single-use, and now we are using them for like a week,” said Atchison. “If we used them as intended, we would go through 30-40 in a day, and that is just not possible.”
To get a new mask, Atchison has to call the Assistant Director of Nursing, who then has to track down the materials management staff who keeps track of the supplies. Atchison first has to show the manager his broken mask; then he is allowed to sign out a new one.
1:00 a.m. to 3:30 a.m.
One of Atchison’s patients is struggling to maintain their oxygen intake above a critical level. The patient is being supplied with the maximum amount of oxygen that can be administered without intubation. Due to the high demand for ventilators and the current status of this patient’s health and age, they were unfortunately not a candidate to be intubated.
Assistance is called to move the patient in a prone position that’s more conducive for breathing, and medication is administered. “We had to accept that this was their state and just hope they would continue to fight and get better,” said Atchison.
Atchison said the hardest part of being a nurse is not being able to provide ventilators for those who need them. When this happens, nurses and doctors are forced to watch their patient’s oxygen levels slowly drop to an unsustainable rate. “It’s not fast and painless; it can take days,” said Atchison.
3:30 a.m. to 3:40 a.m.
Atchison runs to the breakroom for dinner and quickly eats two pieces of pizza. Food donations have come in from all over the city. “They certainly aren’t sending us bad pizza out here,” said Atchison.
3:40 a.m. to 6:59 a.m.
A patient has uncontrollable diarrhea and needs help. Atchison moves them to a bedpan. “They were a younger patient, maybe in their twenties, but the virus made them so weak they couldn’t move,” said Atchison.
Atchison continues taking vitals, changing bedpans and doing everything in his power to make his patients feel comfortable for the rest of his shift. He doesn’t think he got the chance to sit once during the night.
Atchison briefs the incoming nurses about the state of his patients.
When he leaves, all his patients are still alive.
Six years ago, before he knew he wanted to be a nurse, I went on a climbing trip with Chris Atchison. We were both at a low point in our lives and needed to do something extraordinary.
Over three days, I watched Chris climb over five mountains and valleys with 35 pounds on his back through what is known as “the hardest trail in the east.” It was his first climbing trip ever.
He didn’t make it to the end of the trail because he trained and planned for months. Chris got to the end because he is one of the strongest people I have ever met and willed himself to the other side. As I trailed behind him, inching along with his pace, I realized he is a man that can do anything he puts his mind to.
It is an honor and a privilege to know that men and women like Chris are on the front lines of this crisis every day. Nurse Atchison is a hero, and I am proud to call him my friend.