Eau Claire nurse Carolyn Miller is shown in front of a wall of inspirational art and photos of traveling health care workers who have been helping a unit at King’s County Hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y., in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Miller is caring for many COVID-19 patients during her eight-week assignment in New York City.

Carolyn Miller of Eau Claire is used to working in new environments as a traveling nurse, but nothing could prepare her for what she is seeing while serving at a New York hospital overflowing with COVID-19 patients.

Halfway through an eight-week contract to work at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, Miller has a front row seat to ground zero in the nation’s battle against the new coronavirus, as New York leads all 50 states with nearly 28,000 COVID-19 deaths. What she is experiencing in this real-life stint is more shocking and emotionally taxing than anything that plays out on nearby Broadway stages.

She has seen refrigerator trucks parked outside to take care of the bodies of COVID-19 patients who died, oxygen trucks to help keep up with the huge patient demand for high-flow oxygen and military tents set up outside for screening patients before they set foot inside the hospital.

“It’s really sad,” said Miller, 34. “In my first two weeks here, after I left work, I think I cried in the shower pretty much everyday. This is undoubtedly the most stressful job I’ve ever taken on.”

She also recognizes the personal risk to health care workers: Five workers — a doctor, a nurse and three housekeepers — from her 22-bed unit alone have died from COVID-19 this spring. They are among more than 1,000 health care workers worldwide who have died from the virus, according to Medscape.

The reasons Miller put her life on the line by taking the New York job range from the practical — her previous assignment cut short her contract and traveling nurse jobs were drying up across the country as hospitals shut down elective surgeries and other services — to the inspirational — she saw a need and wanted to help.

Miller, who earned an associate degree in nursing from Chippewa Valley Technical College in 2014 and attended nursing school at UW-Milwaukee, is part of a wave of nurses and other health care workers who have flooded to York in an attempt to keep the hospitals from being overrun with COVID-19 patients.

Gina Bloczynski, nursing program director at CVTC, said the college’s faculty are humbled to learn about graduates working on the front lines of the pandemic despite the many unknowns of the situation.

“We are grateful for their resilience in providing knowledgeable and compassionate care to vulnerable patients under difficult circumstances,” Bloczynski said.

For her part, Miller said, “I don’t know if it’s a nurse thing or what, but we all want to help. We have advanced critical skills and this is what we are here to do.”

She acknowledged that working through the largest pandemic in a century isn’t something students imagine when they are attending nursing school.

“To be part of something that’s brand new, like a human experiment, that’s an opportunity you’re just not usually given,” she said.

Safety measures

Her mother, Susan Miller, is a registered dietitian at HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital, which four F-16 Fighting Falcons from the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s 115th Fighter Wing flew over Tuesday to pay tribute to health care workers and first responders for their efforts during the pandemic.

“I am very proud of Carolyn,” Susan Miller said, although she admitted safety concerns flashed through her head upon first hearing of her daughter’s plans. “She is working directly with patients who are infected, so I know she’s at risk of catching it, but I also know she is very knowledgeable about how to reduce that risk.”

Indeed, Carolyn Miller said she has never been denied a mask and also wears booties, gloves, sterile gowns and other personal protective equipment for the entirety of her five 12-hour shifts a week. She dons the PPE in a clean room daily before entering what she called the “hot zone,” or areas of the hospital with COVID-19 patients.

But with so many coronavirus particles present in her unit, Miller said matter-of-factly, “There’s no physical way you’re not going to have some virus on you when you go home at the end of your shift.”

Thus, she also has adopted elaborate procedures to limit the chance of bringing the virus into the apartment she is sharing with a nurse friend from the Midwest. Those measures include leaving her work bag near the entrance and removing and bleaching her shoes as soon as she gets home.

“I think it’s really important for people to understand that PPE isn’t what keeps you safe. It’s washing your hands,” Miller said. “So before touching anything in my apartment, I take off my scrubs and wash my hands.”

Despite all the safety measures, Miller admitted she worries about contracting the virus. She calms those fears by reminding herself she is young and healthy, putting her in a low-risk category for developing serious complications, but also recognizes she has people in her life who have compromised immune systems.

Chaos reigned

While things have calmed down somewhat, Miller described the atmosphere at Kings County Hospital when she first arrived as chaotic.

The hospital had so many patients that some didn’t even have hospital beds. Supplies were so scarce that she recalled using a pack of adult diapers instead of a pillow to prop up a patient in an effort to avoid pressure sores. Fentanyl, IV fluids and other items normally locked up were piled in cribs in the middle of rooms for easy access.

“It was all COVID when I got here. They brought in 300 extra beds and made the capacity 1,000 beds,” she said.

Her floor had one patient die during her first shift and two more die in the next 12 hours. They are among the 4,676 people who have died from COVID-19 in Kings County — the most of any county in the United States — and nearly 90,000 deaths nationwide, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University

“These people are literally the sickest people I’ve ever seen in my life once they’re intubated,” Miller said, noting that COVID-19 patients generally are lying on their bellies and using the most advanced ventilator settings. “They throw these massive blood clots, but their blood is thin. Their lungs don’t become pliable anymore, they become fluid overloaded and their skin just blisters and peels away. It’s horrific. It really is.”

Long days

Miller’s daily routine involves leaving her East Village apartment at about 6:45 p.m. every work day to allow enough time for the hourlong subway ride to the hospital before her shift starts at 8 p.m. She returns home around 9:30 a.m. and sleeps from about 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. before starting the exhausting cycle all over again.

While going out for takeout food on a recent evening off, Miller said she wanted to cry when reminded of a heartwarming New York tradition that has arisen since COVID-19 struck the city with such force.

“Every night at 7 p.m. all of New York City cheers for health care workers, first responders and hospital workers,” she said. “It’s like horns blaring and people out on their balconies clapping, cheering and whistling. It’s just so cool.”

The city has changed in the four weeks Miller has been there, as the virus curve has flattened and the weather has improved.

“When I first got here, it was so surreal. There were like no cars on the road and you hardly saw any people at all,” she said. “It was like I had New York City to myself. You could cross First Avenue without even looking both ways and not worry about getting hit by a car.”

But now more people are outside in parks and coffee shops are full, but with everybody 6 feet apart.

“People here are really serious about social distancing, and everyone wears a mask,” Miller said, joking that the one bright spot of the pandemic is that masks eliminate the need to wear makeup.

Having seen the tremendous toll the virus has taken on their community, New Yorkers understand and accept the need to make such sacrifices, she said.

By contrast, she is alarmed to see photos of people in the Midwest crowded into stores, standing close to each other and not wearing masks. though she understands the pain safer-at-home orders have inflicted on business owners, protests and complaints about restrictions have Miller worried about COVID-19 spikes as Wisconsin and other Midwestern states begin reopening. She hopes people will stay kind to each other and have civil conversations about the issue.

Most of all, she advised people in less affected areas to heed the guidance of epidemiologists trying to protect them.

“Let’s let the scientists and experts make their recommendations,” Miller said, “and let’s listen to them because those are the people you depend on when you actually do get sick.”