'Very easy to get down and be exhausted’ — On the front line aboard the USNS Comfort

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USNS Comfort

Hospitalman Apprentice Kaylah Jenkins dons personal protective equipment during infection control training aboard the hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) as the ship transits the Atlantic Ocean on its way to New York City in support of the nation’s COVID-19 response efforts, March 29, 2020.

Long shifts. Few, if any, days off. Intensive care. But finding solace in their mission.

That’s how several medical workers from Hampton Roads describe their time serving aboard the Norfolk-based hospital ship Comfort while it’s docked in New York City.

The Navy originally said the ship would treat only patients without coronavirus to help ease the strain on the city’s hospitals, but soon reversed course amid pressure from local officials.

The Comfort staff had treated 163 patients as of Friday, about half of whom had COVID-19, Navy Region Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Beth Baker said in an email. More than 80 patients had been discharged.

“Some of these are very complex patients with additional conditions that are being treated at the same time as they are being treated for COVID,” she wrote.

Four crew members of the Comfort who had tested positive for the virus have also since recovered and are back at work, Baker added.

It’s unclear how long the Comfort will stay in New York.

Here’s what four Hampton Roads-based medics had to say about their experiences on the ship when interviewed by Navy officials.

Lt. Catharyn Nosek, ICU nurse

Nosek works as a critical care nurse aboard the Comfort, monitoring patients’ medications and ventilators.

All her patients are currently COVID-positive, she said.

“We’ve got patients lined up on ventilators, that are very sick and need a lot of high quality care,” she said.

They’re certainly sicker than the patients she usually sees at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth.

“In military medicine, our population is so different than what the outside civilian world sees. So these are sicker patients that require a lot more care," she said. “We’re experiencing a lot of challenges taking care of the local population here in New York City, just seeing what these local hospitals deal with on a daily basis."

Luckily, she added, that’s what they’ve trained for.

Occasionally working as a transport nurse, she moves around a lot. Every so often she leaves the ICU to bring new patients on the ship.

That requires taking the patient from an ambulance onto a gurney and up a long ramp.

“We’re taking the patient up the ramp, turning sharp corners, and going back and forth in a zigzag motion for about a quarter of a mile — and that’s while we’re pushing an adult patient on a ventilator with medical equipment," she said. “So it requires a lot of physical labor and a lot of communication to make sure that we do it quickly, but also safely.”

After a long shift, Nosek said she tries to decompress and reflect on what she saw. Staff listen to music together and order food to the hotel "to try to just build that camaraderie and build that morale.

"It’s very easy to get down and be exhausted. We’ve worked weeks and weeks without a day off.”

But it’s important to keep a positive attitude, she said. She keeps telling family and friends “this is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.”

USNS Comfort

The USNS Comfort arrived in New York Harbor to support the national, state and local response to the coronavirus (COVID-19), March 30, 2020.

Ensign Mason Cobb, ICU nurse

Cobb, a Norfolk native who’s stationed at the Portsmouth naval medical center, is also serving as an ICU nurse.

There are four different ICU areas on the Comfort, he said: a couple for patients confirmed or suspected to have COVID-19, and others for non-coronavirus patients, to keep them separated.

When taking care of the former, they’re wearing the maximum amount of personal protective equipment, he said. That includes gowns, goggles, head covers, scrubs, booties and face masks — specifically N95 respirator masks when in negative pressure or isolation rooms.

“Pretty much everything’s covered head to toe,” Cobb said. “It’s kind of unknown what’s coming through the door.”

The ship has also been divided into “red and green zones” — red is for hospital workers and patients, green for support staff.

“Barriers were set up to keep staff where they need to be depending what their role is,” he said.

Previously, Cobb worked for a few years in the Sentara Heart Hospital’s cardiac ICU caring for critically ill patients. That’s helped prepare him for this situation, he said.

“I hope that we are providing relief to the city of New York. I hope that our efforts can be felt and I hope that I’m making my family proud back home and that they stay safe as well during this pandemic. I’m proud to be a Navy nurse.”

Petty Officer 1st Class Brittany Berkley, patient transport shift team leader

Berkley, who’s from Hampton, is a member of the ground team working on patient transport.

“Our job is to make sure that patients are getting where they need to be, with the correct care at the correct time,” she said.

Information about incoming patients goes to the medical officer in charge, she said, and then to the team so they know what the arriving patient needs.

Most of all it’s about being there to reassure them, Berkley said.

“Coming up on a group of people in yellow gowns, gloves and masks, and seeing white tents, can be extremely scary, so myself and my nursing staff here try to make them as comfortable as possible,” she said. “Giving them great eye contact, talking to them, smiling with them, communicating with them, making sure they have everything that they need.

"You’re smiling in your mask but when you smile your eyes also smile, so giving them that eye contact and letting them know that they’re going to be OK.”

On the other end, when patients are discharged, they’ve been very grateful, Berkley added. One man even tried to pay them.

“I’m hoping the momentum keeps going, we keep getting patients in and also getting them out, cause that’s our goal here,” she said.

Berkley said she’s “a nurturer by nature."

“So being able to put that into practice and help people and save lives and change their lives, it’s an awesome opportunity."

USNS Comfort

The Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) provides medical relief to New York City. Comfort cares for trauma, emergency and urgent care patients without regard for their COVID-19 status. April 16, 2020.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Janet Rosas, medical lab technician

Rosas is attached to the Portsmouth naval medical center, but the Comfort is her platform.

“So most of the time when the Comfort goes out, so do I,” she said.

While it’s moored in New York, she’s been working in the ship’s blood bank. Staff there are working 12-hour shifts, so when hers begins it includes relieving counterparts and doing quality control.

As patients start rolling in, the lab tests blood samples. Most are for patients awaiting some type of transfusion, she said.

“We just receive samples, we test them, find compatible units and push them on out. Patients get transfused, we get everything back, review everything, make sure patients aren’t having reactions and that’s our patient care.”

Nurses have established strict rules about cleaning, she said, but now it’s second nature: sanitize every station regularly and wash hands after dealing with each sample.

On board the hospital ship, everyone was “a little concerned at first" about the potential risks, Rosas said.

“We still think about it, but at the same time I think we’re taking precautions to really lower the risk of us getting infected.”

They’re covered up completely when handling patient samples and switch masks daily, she added.

She also communicates with family home in California almost daily.

“It’s a little hard to be away from family, especially during these times,” Rosas said. “But they’re very proud of me. They do believe we’re making a difference here and we really are.”

©2020 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) - Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.