On April 4, 2020, while most were grateful for the low number of COVOD-19 cases in Walton County and trying their best to figure out how to improve their home teaching skills, ER nurse Melissa Page from Loganville was at Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport headed for New York City. With her she had a large suitcase packed with masks, bands, and hand sanitizer that friends had donated for her to take to fellow medical personnel in NYC. She was headed to Mount Sinai in Brooklyn to lend her skills to those on the front line in the nation’s battle against the coronavirus.
“It is so early! Boarding in 25 minutes. The nerves are gone, now I’m just excited,” she announced on Facebook as she waited to board. As a paramedic and then an ER nurse at Northeast Georgia Medical in Winder, Melissa had seen her fair share of serious situations, but that couldn’t prepare her for what was to come.
“The most shocking moment was walking into the department on that first day and being completely overwhelmed by the sheer chaos of the situation. It’s always busy and somewhat frantic in any large emergency department, but this was like nothing I have ever experienced,” she said. “There were patients on stretchers everywhere, two or three in every room. In hallways, in alcoves. Alarms were sounding, people were shouting to be heard. The staff is all clad in protective equipment, so you can only see their eyes behind a plastic shield. They’re moving quickly between patients and brushing past each other and calling out needs or asking for extra hands or extra equipment.”
The shock of all prompted Melissa to post this on Facebook a week or so ago when she saw that people back in Georgia didn’t seem to understand just how serious it could be.
“I am, right now, in New York, watching people die DAILY. During my 12-hour shift yesterday, 36 people died. Thirty Six. Most are our grandmothers and grandfathers. Most are from nursing homes who don’t leave their rooms, so SOMEONE brought this death sentence of a virus to them. Someone that wasn’t practicing social distancing killed these little old people.
Here’s something else for y’all to know…when they die, they have to die alone because having their family at the bedside is a health risk. At the end, they are so sick that the lack of oxygen makes them confused and scared. And if I have 60 seconds to stop between running from one patient to the next, I can hold their frail little hand and stroke their head. They can’t see my face because it’s under a mask or feel my skin because I’m wearing a glove, but I pray to God that they know another human is beside them mourning the loss of their life and they’re not alone.
This pandemic isn’t a political machinations. It’s life and death. It’s a war zone, and we’re losing.”
Melissa said it has been hard for her to see such suffering on one hand and then, on the other hand, some people taking it so lightly.
“I have been witness to the suffering of patients, those who know that they are dying, and they can’t have family at their bedside. The hospital has had to enact a strict no visitor policy to contain the spread of the virus. At the end, they can’t breathe, they get confused, and they get scared,” she said going on to say how hard it is to see some people on Facebook posting about how this is all a “government conspiracy” and they’re protesting and not complying with social distancing policies. “If those people could spend 12 hours with me on a shift, they would feel differently, I think.”
Melissa said here in Walton County we don’t realize just how quickly and easily this disease can spread.
“More so than the flu. We’re seeing adults of all ages coming in with symptoms, but it’s the elderly that seem the most affected. People over the age of 70 seem to be getting hit the worst. These people aren’t getting out and going places, so others are bringing the illness to them,” she said.
Melissa is not the only first responder in her family. She is married to Jason Page, a firefighter with Walton County Fire Rescue. He is back in Georgia taking care of the family, but like other first responders, he’s also taking care of the community at the same time. He is understandably worried about his wife and says he tries to be there for her on the other end of the phone when he can.
“I’m worried about her getting sick and being in New York all alone. But I also worry about the long-term effects on her mental health. She has described it to me as a hospital in a war zone. There will probably be a lot of healthcare workers with PTSD,” he said. “Melissa is a strong woman. She has seen and done a lot in her time in public safety. But I don’t think anyone could be prepared for what is going on there. She does get emotional sometimes, but then she refocuses on why she went in the first place and all the good she is doing to help the patients and take some of the workload off the New York nurses. We have both been in public safety for a while and we have always been able to talk to each other and understand how each other feels. But this is something neither of us has ever experienced. I listen to her and reassure her that she is a blessing to the people of New York. We also video chat a lot so she can see and interact with Aiden, our grandbaby. That usually brightens her spirit.”
Melissa said through it all, there are some things she’s learned, about herself, and about New York and New Yorkers.
“I don’t think you can go through something of this magnitude and not have it change you. I’ve learned that I can handle more than I thought I could, nurse-wise. And I’ve learned to rely on my family and friends for emotional support because the initial ‘shell shock’ caught me off guard,” she said. “The people of New York have been so welcoming and grateful to those of us who have come to help. You always hear about the New Yorker attitude, but everyone has been so nice. The community restaurants have been providing food to the department every day, children are making signs and cards and posting them outside. This tragedy has brought the people together in a way that I haven’t seen since 9/11.”
When she left in early April, Melissa was on an 8-week contract until May 30, but should things ease up, she could get to return to her family a little sooner. She said she believes she is beginning to see the first signs of an improvement now.
“I hope so. Over the last two weeks, we’ve seen a decline in the sheer volume of patients in the department. It’s still not great, but the numbers appear to be going down. During my last shift, we didn’t have anyone on a ventilator in the department. A week ago, there were 6-8 on vents at any given time,” she said. “The emergency department at Mount Sinai Brooklyn was hit hard at the beginning of the pandemic, losing 33 staff members to illness in the first two weeks. Some have come back, but others are still too sick. Two nurses remain in the ICU, one on a ventilator.”
While it has been tough for Melissa to be away from her family, she misses them and worries about them too, but she believes she’s where she’s supposed to be at the moment.
“It’s terrifying to think that my family could get sick while I’m away from home, and I can’t get back to them. I video chat with them nightly, but it’s not the same as hugging them. I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be right now, though. It can’t be easy for them, either, but I hope they understand why I’m doing it, and I hope they’re proud of what I’m doing. Because I couldn’t do it without them,” she said. “I am so very proud to be a nurse. I feel like every part of my life has led me to this calling. When I saw how the New York nurses were struggling, very much like soldiers in a war that no one was prepared to fight, I couldn’t just stay at home. They needed help. I wanted to help.”
And proud of her they are.
“She put it in terms I would understand. She said this was her 9/11. And I know if I would have had an opportunity to go to NYC to help during 9/11, I would have,” Jason said. “We are concerned – but also very proud.”