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UTHSC Nursing Student Serves on COVID-19 Front Line in New York City

Amber Gordon, a UTHSC Doctor of Nursing Practice student, volunteered to travel to New York City and help treat COVID-19 patients there. “I just knew that I wanted to help in any way that I could,” she said.

Amber Gordon, RN, just completed 21 straight days of 12-hour shifts serving as a nurse in one of the hospitals that was hardest-hit by COVID-19 – Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, New York.

Gordon, of Memphis, is a registered nurse and a student in the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program in the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s College of Nursing. When the coronavirus reached crisis level, “I just knew that I wanted to help in any way that I could,” she said. “I don’t think anybody really grasped the kind of experience they were going to get.”.

Gordon signed up as a temporary nurse with a company that handles emergent staffing needs and is working with hospitals in New York City. With ICU and dialysis experience in Memphis hospitals, she was not naïve about the realities of acute health care. Still, she had never seen severe illness on such magnitude before. The 11-floor hospital had COVID-19 patients on nearly every floor, and the staff was exhausted, she said.

On Gordon’s first day, one of the physicians asked if she was there to help. When she confirmed that she was, the doctor said, “ ‘Thank God,’ and she burst out crying. It was shocking,” Gordon said. “Just to see her break down like that was very powerful and very moving.”

During her four weeks at Elmhurst, Gordon saw the situation improving. When she arrived, the emergency department (ED) had about 200 people waiting at a time. After she had been there for three weeks, the ED waiting room crowd had declined to about 30. And the hospital was even converting a COVID-19 unit back to a non-COVID unit.

Gordon said working in the heart of the pandemic was like being in a battle zone.

Gordon was full of praise for the hospital staff.  “The staff is incredible. The people I work with here, I consider them my family.”

They developed a camaraderie similar to soldiers in battle. “When you are in the trenches, you have to have great team members with you,” she said. “I have heard people describe this as a war. It is how I picture a war being. You have to be focused, in the zone. We are really fighting against this virus, and it’s serious.”

Bobby Bellfower, DNSc, NNP, program director of the UTHSC College of Nursing’s DNP program, said, “Amber has always demonstrated a desire to help where needed. I was not surprised when she was one of the first to answer the call for volunteers in New York.”

At Elmhurst, Gordon cared for COVID-19 patients of all ages and races.  “What I have learned is that COVID doesn’t care how old you are or what race you are.” And patients could appear to be getting better, and then their condition would suddenly worsen.

That happened to Gordon when she had a patient on dialysis. The patient had seemed to be getting better, and then suddenly crashed. Although staff attempted to resuscitate, the patient passed away. Sadly, the same thing had happened to one of her cousins in Memphis while Gordon was serving in New York City. The cousin, just 40, had appeared to be improving, but then worsened and passed away from complications of coronavirus.

When Gordon lost her patient in New York so soon after losing her cousin, “that moment was very real to me. I had to take a moment and gather myself together,” she said.

Back in Memphis, Gordon is self-quarantining and reflecting on her experiences on the front lines of the pandemic.

“This is real life, and real people’s lives are being lost daily. These are people’s loved ones who are not able to speak to them again. That is one of the saddest things to have to deal with on a daily basis.”

A graduate of Houston High School and Union University, Gordon is back in Memphis, where she works PRN at local hospitals, while working toward her DNP. She is self-quarantining for 14 days following her time in New York, although she has no symptoms.

In spite of all the challenges, Gordon said she is grateful for her experience in New York. Early on at Elmhurst, Gordon worked with an ICU patient who went on to recover from the virus. “That is what keeps you motivated and going. If you can change one life, that makes a big difference.”

Editor’s note: This is another in a series of stories looking at how UTHSC students, faculty, and staff across the campus are contributing to the battle against the coronavirus. We are seeking stories about students, faculty, staff, and alumni contributing to this effort. Please contact communications@uthsc.edu if you have ideas for future stories. For up-to-date information and resources about the coronavirus, go to https://uthsc.edu/coronavirus/.