'They were all people I knew': US nurse finds 'new hope' despite losing friends and patients to Covid-19

NEW YORK – It was April in New York, the cold grip of winter only slightly loosening in a stricken city of ambulances racing through deserted streets and hospital tents set up in Central Park.

In late March and early April, nearly 1,700 people were being hospitalised daily, according to New York City’s health department.

One of those battling on the front line of the rampaging pandemic was Ms Sachiko Kiyomi, a nurse on the night shift in a nursing home, who one night that April was carrying a body down to the morgue when she was told that it was full, and she had to put it in a refrigerator truck.

On the way, she encountered the family of the deceased. The dead man’s son had been upset and angry at first, cursing her on the phone, insisting that he had the right to see his father – something he was prevented from doing by Covid-19 protocols. Now face to face, he apologised. She told him that she would have felt the same way.

His father had been happy at the nursing home, the son said. It was not as impersonal as a hospital. She and the family cried together, she recalled.

Then she and a colleague continued with the body on a stretcher, clambering up a ramp into the chilly refrigerator truck, holding a single lamp with a long cord, which was the only way to see inside. She was at the bottom end of the stretcher; at one point, the weight of the body slid down against her stomach as they lugged it upwards.

“There were bodies on the floor of the truck,” she said. Because there was no time, the practice of attaching a tag with the person’s name on it, on the body bag, had been abandoned.

Now their names were written on a sheet of paper and stuck on the body bags. By the light of the lamp, she read them. “They were all people I knew,” she said. “I was crying.”

Shortly after she went back to her floor, she was told another resident had died.

Three residents died on her floor alone (there were others on other floors) within eight hours that night.

Ms Kiyomi, seeing herself as an awkward fit in Japan, came to the United States when she was 18 to study fashion. That was 24 years ago. Eventually, she switched to studying to be a nurse.

She is now an American citizen, at 42, living in a narrow, cluttered apartment in East Harlem, twice married and twice divorced, with four children – two boys and two girls – ranging from four to 20 years old.

Ms Sachiko Kiyomi at the front door of her East Harlem apartment. ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH

She is also a nurse who holds down two jobs, often involving night shifts, at the nursing home and a hospital – both of which she requested should remain unnamed.

Ms Kiyomi radiates warmth and positive energy. She has an infectious smile.

In the tiny living room with a heavy grained wooden table and a washing machine rumbling to itself in the attached kitchen, she cradled a little dog and remembered the night the three residents died of the coronavirus. Two of her younger children wandered in and out of the room.

Tacked on the window of the children’s room is a sign in crayon colours: hearts, and the word “Love”.

The sign on the window of Ms Kiyomi’s children’s room. ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH

Ms Kiyomi also lost three co-workers to the coronavirus. One had been like a mother to her, she said.

She worked the night shift at the nursing home. She could manage that even as the rest of the city ground to a halt because she was able to send her younger children to a special school set up specifically for the children of healthcare workers so that they could continue to work.

“It was hell” at the nursing home, she said. “It was worse than the reports in the media.”

One floor devoted to dementia patients, which was usually a lively hive of activity, fell silent as residents were confined to their rooms, some of them becoming ill as well.

Nursing homes are not equipped for patients suffering medical emergencies. She was the only fully qualified nurse; the rest were certified nursing assistants. At one point, they worked, sweating in their protective gear, trying to revive a patient.

“Sometimes, the pulse came back and we were like ‘oh my god’,” she said. But it can happen fleetingly when one is manually manipulating the heart. “We gave it everything we could but after 45 minutes, we could not do anything more,” she said.

America’s nursing homes suffered mass casualties.

The one in which Ms Kiyomi works was not alone. According a New York Times database, at least 68,000 residents and workers have died of the coronavirus at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities for older adults across the nation.

The facilities were overwhelmed; in many cases, the staff did not have enough personal protective equipment for themselves and were grateful for donations from citizens.

The coronavirus is particularly lethal for older people with underlying health issues. Even though just 8 per cent of the country’s cases have occurred in such long-term care facilities, deaths related to Covid-19 in these facilities have accounted for more than 41 per cent of the country’s pandemic fatalities, the New York Times reported.

The United States currently leads the world in Covid-19 infections and deaths, with nearly seven million cases and more than 200,000 deaths.

There were days of crying. But coming home to the children helped, Ms Kiyomi said.

She has a nanny at home – an 85-year-old Japanese woman who lived through World War II. This is nothing compared to then, she would say. “She’s the one you should interview, not me,” Ms Kiyomi joked.

Asked to sum up what her takeaway is from having battled in the nursing home at the height of the pandemic, Ms Kiyomi said that in the greater scheme of things, she found a message of “new hope”.

“New hope,” she repeated. “Because before this, we took so much for granted.”

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