Ali Cosgrove and Scott Dollar left their spouses and nurse anesthesia classmates behind in North Carolina to trek hundreds of miles north to join in this region's battle against the new coronavirus.
Along with their colleagues at Catholic Health's St. Joseph Campus in Cheektowaga, they helped preserve fragile family ties through video calls for Covid-19 patients who can't have visitors.
They mourned those patients whose struggle to live ended in the intensive care unit. And they celebrated when one patient given a poor prognosis was taken off his ventilator and breathed on his own.
"We didn't know if he'd wake up and be himself again," Dollar said in a joint FaceTime interview with Cosgrove. "I was able to shake his hand and tell him how proud of him that I was."
They are among the dozens of traveling nurses and nurses from other Catholic Health hospitals who agreed to work at St. Joseph after it was converted to a Covid-19 treatment center.
St. Joseph expanded its intensive care unit from six beds to 90 beds and more than doubled its nursing staff to care for coronavirus patients, said Susan Brooks, director of nursing and patient care services.
If the core staff who remained to work at St. Joseph are the hospital's heart, Brooks said, "I say now that all of these other folks coming in to help us are our heartbeat."
Cosgrove and Dollar say they don't want to be singled out for praise. They're just glad they were in a position – young enough and healthy enough, with no kids – to help and they lauded everyone from their fellow nurses to the employees at the hotel where they are staying.
"Just seeing the community and everybody coming together, it's surreal," Cosgrove said. "I feel like I'm living in a movie. But nursing – I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."
Both are enrolled in the doctor of nurse anesthesia practice program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where they met. Cosgrove, 34, is from Asheville, N.C., and Dollar, 31, is from St. Louis.
The study buddies became fast friends, Dollar said: "Somebody at work called us peanut butter and jelly."
When their classes moved online and their clinical rotations were suspended this spring, Dollar started looking into working as a traveling nurse in New York, which was hard hit by the coronavirus.
He called Cosgrove to see if she would be willing to go with him on a short-term posting. She already was considering the same idea and agreed to go.
With the support of their respective spouses, the pair accepted a one-month assignment at St. Joseph Campus arranged through a travel nurse agency. Neither had previously visited here.
They signed the paperwork on April 3, landed in Buffalo on April 5 and started work the next day.
"It was a little nerve-wracking getting here, seeing everything for the first time, not really knowing what to expect going into it," Dollar said.
Cosgrove and Dollar work from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. five days a week.
Like others at St. Joseph, they must put on a gown, gloves, N95 mask, surgical mask, a bouffant cap and goggles before entering the area with Covid-19 patients.
"It gets really, really hot, especially being on your feet all day and moving patients around," said Dollar.
Each day, they are assigned to take care of between two to four Covid-19 patients. Most are on ventilators to help them breathe and are hooked up to intravenous medication drips.
Working with doctors, physician assistants and other staff, Cosgrove and Dollar help monitor and adjust the patients' medication levels throughout the day.
They bathe patients, feed them through tubes, help keep their airways clear and shift them onto their stomachs as part of a protocol, called proning, that has shown promising results in Covid-19 patients.
"We're doing total care," Cosgrove said.
Most patients are sedated and not able to communicate, but both said it is rewarding when they improve to the point their breathing tubes are removed and they are transferred out of the ICU.
With visitors banned for safety reasons, Cosgrove said she has talked to patients and prayed with them and helped them stay connected with their families through FaceTime.
They have also played music requested by relatives from their phones, which they keep in sealed bags. Some patients are sedated and don't know what they're hearing, Dollar said, but others wake up to a familiar song.
"I've had some good classic rock playing all week," Cosgrove said. "So we've been jamming out."
One patient didn't speak English but his family did and they told Dollar the man liked Spanish Christian music. So that's what the nursing student played for him.
"He just started moving his hands around, like waving them a little bit, and he almost started crying," Dollar said.
Cosgrove and Dollar, like many of their peers, said working with Covid-19 patients takes a mental toll.
"Laying down at night, there were a few nights that I felt like I couldn't breathe," Cosgrove said of her first days here. "I don't know if it was just nerves getting ready to start."
Both had prior experience with patients dying. But they said it's difficult to see this happening now without loved ones physically present for their final moments.
"We are staying there with them and holding their hands and letting them know that somebody's with them," Cosgrove said.
"The only people surrounding these patients is staff. And they're all gowned up, and it's odd," added Dollar. "It's really hard. It's very sad."
When they aren't on duty, Cosgrove and Dollar studied for their online exams and worked out in their rooms at the Millennium Buffalo hotel, where they are staying on a floor with other health care workers.
They praised the food from Rachel's Mediterranean Grill and Root & Bloom Cafe.
Given widespread restaurant closures and their work schedules, they haven't tried chicken wings or beef on weck during their stay here – but they did get a taste of the other thing Buffalo is known for.
"The snow was shocking," Cosgrove said.
Dollar celebrated his 31st birthday here. He said colleagues sang "Happy Birthday" and made a sign for him while his wife, Brittany, ordered dinner for him and Cosgrove from the Cheesecake Factory.
"I won't ever forget this birthday," Dollar said.
Dollar and Cosgrove both became emotional as they discussed the end to their tour of duty here.
"This has become our family away from home," Cosgrove said.
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