On May 1, Tucker Westbrook could finally sleep in. He’d been on duty as a COVID-19 crisis nurse at Harlem Hospital Center in New York City for 11 consecutive days, with a routine that began before the sun came up and ended long after the city had gone dark.
Most mornings, he’d wake at 5:45 am., center himself with prayer and meditation, eat breakfast, and hop on a bus in time to clock in for his shift at the largest public hospital in Central Harlem by 7 a.m.
Each day as he entered the halls of the facility’s surgical floor as a nurse, which was transformed into a COVID-19 holding unit for the larger part of his three-week work rotation, he was unsure of what he’d encounter.
Just weeks earlier, Westbrook, a May 2019 Georgia Southern University nursing graduate from Butler, Georgia, accepted a short-term contract to assist with the Coronavirus pandemic in the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak.
This was Westbrook’s first professional job, following what was supposed to be a yearlong mission trip in Southeast Asia, but was cut short due to the pandemic, and nothing could fully prepare him for the impact of his initial experience.
“The first day, I thought, ‘I’m not prepared for this,’” he admitted. “Those first few days I was on pins and needles and thought, ‘how am I going to mess up?’”
The stkes were high. By the time he arrived in New York City, thousands had already been hospitalized, and many had died. Seasoned nurses and doctors were depleted and morale was low across the city, he explained on the phone as he looked out over a desolate Times Square from his hotel window.
“They asked me, ‘why did you come here?’” Westbrook recalled. “And I said that I wanted to be, hopefully, a light in this dark place right now. The patients, the doctors, the nurses, the nursing assistants, the janitorial assistants — my goal is to learn everyone’s names and greet them with a smile behind my mask.”
A friend encouraged Westbrook to look for a temporary nursing job upon his return from abroad. When he applied for highly competitive positions with a crisis staffing agency, he requested placement in an area hard hit by the pandemic.
“Just like Southeast Asia, I wanted to go where there was the biggest need, and I had enough gifts to meet that need,” Westbrook said.
This was Westbrook’s first trip to New York, and he stepped into a scene where images of makeshift morgues and ventilator shortages splashed across the media came to life in front of him.
“It has been surreal to see,” he said.
Assigned to provide cluster care to potential COVID-19-positive patients for minimal exposure, Westbrook also focused on simple acts of kindness to help ease increased anxiety among the patients.
“That might be things as small as giving a wet rag to wipe their face,” Westbrook said. “It may be filling their jars with ice cold water in the morning. Whatever might help them feel more comfortable.”
Westbrook’s patients were diverse: a teenage gunshot victim who sobbed at the prospect of being infected with the virus; an adult male who discussed intimate thoughts about death with his family over the phone; and a woman who was depressed until Westbrook sat with her so she didn’t feel alone.
Experiencing humanity in its most delicate form was life-defining.
“I was learning more about nursing care but also continuing to serve (my patients) beyond simply giving them medicine,” Westbrook said. “I was able to advocate for them with the doctor, especially without their families there. I’m learning how to go above and beyond, and what our job responsibilities are. I want to keep growing and learning to continue to give care to my patients.”
The hospital staff also offered enormous support and guidance to Westbrook, who almost two weeks into the job felt exponentially more confident in his abilities.
“If you had told me about any of this I wouldn’t believe it,” he said. “It has been incredible. I did not think I could do that at all, and here I am on the other side. This was such a lofty and high goal to complete this and do well. I’m thankful to even be here and have this opportunity.”
Westbrook credits his father for encouraging him to study nursing, and Georgia Southern faculty for their expert instruction, which he put to use in New York, as well as their sage advice.
“I wasn’t sure I was going to get my license,” he said. “My desire to become a doctor or a missionary became more and more compelling, but my professors assured me that it would be worthwhile to pursue my license, and they were right.”
Following a quarantine in his family’s home, Westbrook will begin pre-medicine classes at Georgia Southern this summer.
Westbrook joins several other Georgia Southern School of Nursing alumni on the front lines in New York:
Jeanette Leggett – Armstrong State University (‘10)
Dierdre Taylor – Armstrong State University (‘11)
Elizabeth Landrum – Armstrong State University (‘14)
Kaliya Alfred – Georgia Southern University – Armstrong campus (‘18)
Jessica Journeycake – Georgia Southern University – Armstrong campus (‘18)
Katerina Reyzin – Georgia Southern University – Armstrong campus (‘18)
Caroline Yost – Georgia Southern University – Statesboro campus (‘19)
May 12 is International Nurses Day and marks the final day of National Nurses Week, which began on May 6.