Intensive Care

Nurse Leah Lahoda sacrificed time at home with her husband, Peter, and sons, from left, Kiernan, 10, Henry 11 and Langston, 5, to work at the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City this spring.

The coronavirus has taught us there are heroes walking among us who wear scrubs instead of capes, quietly risking their lives while most of us sleep.  ICU nurse Leah Lahoda is one of them. Just after the first tsunami of COVID-19 patients overwhelmed New York City hospitals in early April, Lahoda, a Shadowlawn Drive resident who works at UPMC Mercy, heard her colleagues talking about going there to help. Things were grim: entire hospitals had become COVID-19 hospitals, cafeterias and conference rooms became 24-bed ICUs and makeshift tent hospitals were going up in city parklets.

At first, she thought, “I can’t,” thinking about her husband, Peter and three sons, ages 11, 9 and 5.  But the idea kept coming back: she was a skilled medical and neuro ICU nurse, and she wanted to help, but was hesitant. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” her husband countered. “You’ll never get this chance again. Do it.”  Nine days later, on the day after her birthday, Lahoda drove to the Airbnb in Brooklyn where she joined her colleagues to work at the NYU Winthrop Hospital in Mineola, Long Island.

Lahoda worked 48 hours per week, the 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift (her usual working hours at home), but that’s where the similarities ended. She was now working in a massive 1,000-bed hospital, where she didn’t know their computer-based charting and medical records system, or where supplies were kept. She didn’t know, but found out quickly, that if a nurse needed medications or fluid bags for IV patients or dialysis, she had to find her way to the basement pharmacy herself.  During the night shift, there were only two or three nurses to care for 12 patients, all of whom were on IV drips.

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Opportunities to test her mettle never let up: one patient’s dialysis machine started to flood, and his oxygen level dropped while she was FaceTiming with his daughter. She quickly ended the call to get both issues under control. Another ICU patient, in great shape according to his family, had an undetected circulation issue, severe enough for him to lose an arm in order to survive.

Ultimately, the shortage of nurses at night meant she had to handle much of the critical care herself in a full unit, which strengthened her confidence, she says.  But she credits her fellow travelers­—nurses who came to the city from Texas, Arizona, Florida, western New York—with creating a rewarding bond they still cherish and maintain in their “SCIU Night” Facebook page.

Lahoda keeps in touch with the friends she made during her stay in New York at the height of the pandemic.

“We became family to each other, and formed such a tight bond,”  she says. Their night shift travelers’ community weathered the pace, constant staff shortages, supply shortages; and the loss of patients and other nurses. One nurse lost both grandparents in the same unit within days of each other.  An NYU nurse on their team developed COVID, then had a stroke.  Another, a 36-year-old nurse from Texas, contracted the virus and died; his fellow nurses set up a GoFundMe page for his family.

At the end of her eight-week contract, Lahoda’s husband surprised her by flying into New York, and sweeping her off  to the Poconos. The results of her final COVID test—negative—arrived that day. After quarantining for two weeks, she returned home, and the family took a well-deserved beach vacation in Maryland.

The unrelenting stress, the brittle exhaustion in the faces of nurses leaving their shifts, and “the beauty of humanity, the importance of community,” she says, all coexisted to create the inspiring and the unspeakable, the beauty and the ugliness, bound together as they are in most hospitals. Where superheroes clock in every day, undetected.

Family portraits by Tom O’Connor