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When Moffitt nurse Leah Churchill arrived at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn on April 17, she was assigned to what was called the “black unit.”

It was a make-shift area inside the hospital, carved out for COVID-19 patients who were too seriously ill for the intensive care unit. It was unorganized chaos, beds lined wall to wall with little space to move between them.

There were no directions, no orientation. Churchill was immediately thrown into what looked like a war zone. It was time to do what she could.

After spending two weeks on the “black unit,” Churchill was moved to another area to care for COVID-19 patients.

“We opened the doors, looked into room and there were probably 70 patients all on ventilators dying,” said Churchill. “We walked in the door and they said, ‘Pick a patient without a nurse and go with it.’ There were no reports, it was just take care of them and try and keep them alive.”

One patient Churchill approached was already dead.

Answering the call

It was early April and New York City was the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. Hospitals were inundated with COVID-19 patients and desperately needed help: more equipment, more nurses, more prayers.

Churchill in full protective equipment while caring for COVID-19 patients

Churchill in full protective equipment while caring for COVID-19 patients

On April 6, Churchill was jolted awake at 3 a.m. and couldn’t go back to sleep.

“I have a lot of faith and God woke me up in the middle of the night and told me to go to New York,” she said.

She went online and filled out an application. By the time the sun rose that morning, she had already received a phone call. She filed for a leave of absence from her job as a radiation oncology nurse at Moffitt Cancer Center and headed to Brooklyn.

At the hospital, they asked her what days she could work. She told them to put her down for every day.

Before joining Moffitt almost three years ago, Churchill, 49, spent more than 20 years in emergency and critical care. Because of her experience, she was one of the few nurses at the Brooklyn hospital who were consistently moved to different units.

Light in the darkness

Churchill spent eight weeks at the hospital working 12-hour overnight shifts. She worked all but two of the 56 days. Wearing double masks, she cared for patients in the make-shift COVID-19 areas, ICU, critical care floors and trauma emergency room. She even treated the youngest COVID-19 patients in the pediatric emergency room.

Churchill cares for a COVID-19 patient

Churchill cares for a COVID-19 patient

She can only recall one adult patient she knows walked out the doors of the hospital alive.

“This was probably the worst thing I have ever done,” said Churchill, choking back tears. “It was very emotional and I can’t even talk about it. It is mentally exhausting because as a nurse your job is to save people, but every night there are three to four people around you dying.”

To get through the emotional toll, Churchill grasped onto the one bright light amidst the decay and darkness: the patients and their families. Since visitors were not allowed inside the hospital, Churchill stepped in. She met family members via video chat and learned as much as she could about each patient.

She began to compile patient stories. A World War II veteran, a minister dedicated to helping children in Harlem, a life-long volunteer. Each story gave Churchill the hope she needed to carry on. 

She also leaned on the support of two other visiting nurses, who had become close friends during the chaos. They would cry in the bathroom and hug each other in the waiting room during their breaks.

Churchill (left) with two other nurses working at Kings County Hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic

Churchill (left) with two other nurses working at Kings County Hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic

“This was most definitely the hardest thing I have ever done in nursing,” recalled Churchill. “But at the same time, it was very rewarding. I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

Returning home

After her last shift, Churchill had to quarantine for two weeks before returning home and to work. It was a peaceful two weeks, taking time to process what she had seen. Her emotional scars began to heal.

She says it’s difficult to talk about what she experienced, but is grateful she can freely express herself in a group chat with her two nursing friends from New York.

After a negative COVID-19 test, Churchill was back in her husband’s arms for the first time in almost three months, and hopes to be able to see her three young grandchildren once things settle down. 

Churchill says transitioning back into her role at Moffitt will be a challenge, but she knows she can use what she’s learned to be an even better nurse than she was before she left.

“In some way, cancer patients are a version of the COVID patients,” she said. “They know what’s going on and they’re going to fight. I think I now have a little more understanding that when these patients are fighting they are really going to fight hard.”