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Why this Forsyth County health care worker volunteered to help a New York hospital, and plans to go back
Forsyth County resident Sarah Chase volunteered to work at Mount Sinai Beth Israel hospital in New York, the state hardest hit by the novel coronavirus pandemic (Photo courtesy Sarah Chase).

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On Monday, March 30, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo stood at a makeshift hospital in Manhattan and made a plea to the country for help as the city and state became the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. 

At the time, New York had more than half of the coronavirus cases in the country, and the worst was still ahead. During a press conference, Cuomo appealed to medical workers in regions yet tested by the virus to come to New York and assist the state’s overburdened hospitals. 

"We need relief,” Cuomo said.

Sarah Chase qualified in every way. The Forsyth County resident is a part-time physician assistant in the emergency room department of a metro Atlanta hospital. But the ER’s volume had dropped drastically during the pandemic, so her hours were cut back. Chase also used to practice in New York and still has an active license there.

Chase talked with her husband: she could give her shifts at the hospital to full-time employees and volunteer in New York for a week. 

Her husband agreed, and within a week Chase left him, their two sons and flew to New York, one of tens of thousands from around the country who have flooded the city and state hardest hit by the pandemic to give its doctors, nurses and other medical staff some respite.

“I guess I kind of just felt like I wanted to do something,” Chase said.

On Friday, April 10, after a plane ride with just 30 people, Chase rode in an Uber through a New York she didn’t recognize. 

Two years ago, she encountered the typical Big Apple experience during a trip: sidewalks packed with people, streets slammed with traffic. 

Ten days ago, “it was unfathomable,” Chase said. “There [was] no one on the streets. Time Square was completely empty.”

The chaos was instead in the hospitals. Underprepared and overwhelmed, the virus took a toll on hospital staff, thinning its ranks as doctors, nurses and PAs fell ill. The grim reality led to Cuomo’s public cry for help.

After a day of training, Chase was ready to help. A day later, she was recruited to work at Mount Sinai Beth Israel, a former teaching hospital on Manhattan’s Lower East Side that the government was reopening to deal with the crisis. Three floors opened for patients: two for COVID-19 cases, one for non-COVID-19 cases. Chase was a part of the early staff there. She was assigned to the “non-COVID” floor.

“I tell all my friends and family, you guys were praying for me,’” Chase said.

New York officials reopened three floors of the former Mount Sinai Beth Israel hospital to help relieve other hospitals overwhelmed by the surge of COVID-19 patients (GoogleMaps).

The hospital was quickly full with patients from nearby facilities eager to ease their capacities. 

It was “controlled chaos,” Chase said. 

Though she worked on the non-COVID floor, Chase and the rest of the staff treated every patient as if they had the disease, because they might have. 

There was one patient, a man waiting to have surgery, who had already tested negative for the virus a week or two before. Before doctors performed the procedure, staff decided to test him one more time. He was positive.

“It’s like an untamed beast,” Chase said. “You can’t figure it out.”

And it’s a beast that must be faced alone. Many patients are elderly that can only see family through FaceTime or Zoom calls. Some have dementia and can’t advocate for themselves. 

“People, they’re very isolated in the hospital,” Chase said. “It’s for a good reason--they’re keeping people safe--but …”

Eventually, Chase figured out that though the moment was immense the work was largely the same. She took many of the same precautions she does at her regular job: wearing gloves and a mask, washing hands regularly, cleaning her work station.

“You do the same things that you do with any other patient or any other setting,” Chase said. “Just a little more aware.”

What lifted Chase’s spirits was to see others like her, those who left family and friends for another part of the country to help their own. Many, she said, were on 45- to 60-day contracts.

“It was awesome seeing all these people come together for the greater good of humanity,” Chase said. “Everybody was coming to help. Everybody was working together. 

“That’s our purpose in life, is to really try to help. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and I feel a lot of people were doing that.”

For Chase, the experience also reinforced the effectiveness of the drastic shelter-in-place orders used by New York and other states around the country. State officials are cautiously optimistic they are working, too. New York’s daily death toll continues to decline. Cuomo recently formed a group with other governors in the region to discuss an approach to reopening their states’ economies.

“The more we social distance, the better this is going to be,” Chase said. “We’re going to save lives.”

By Friday afternoon, Chase was back in Forsyth County watching her two boys play in their backyard. She was grateful for her husband’s week of “stay-at-home dad” duty. “It’s nice to be back,” Chase said.

But she was already planning to return to New York.

“I’m probably going to go back in two weeks,” she said.