Traveling nurse shares own pandemic experiences

OKEECHOBEE — Robby Pickett has been working as a nurse in areas that have been categorized as COVID-19 hot spots since the pandemic began, and not once has he seen the overwhelming caseloads of coronavirus patients portrayed on social media and in the news.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News
Robby Pickett, who works as a traveling emergency room nurse, said the things we see on the news relating to the coronavirus are not the things he has experienced in the last four months.

Pickett is essentially a nurse contractor. In Florida, the population swells in the winter, and in New York or similar areas, the population swells in the summertime. Rather than hire extra nurses to work year-round, the hospitals in those areas might contract with a nurse for their busy times, he explained. Any time a hospital has a need for extra staff for a short time, that’s where traveling nurses come in. They are hired to augment the existing staff, and once the need ends, they leave and go on to the next place.

When the pandemic began in February, Pickett had just extended his contract in Orlando. He loved the hospital where he was working, and they needed him longer, so he extended the contact for an additional three months. But, this was also right about the time everyone began to get scared, and things started to shut down. Everyone stopped going to restaurants and everywhere else, including hospitals. All non-essential surgeries were postponed, and even emergency room visits fell off. Because of this, the census in the hospital was very low. “I’d sit around all shift, and they canceled me in the beginning of March.” They explained they had to cancel his contract. They had no choice.

He worked out a two-week notice there, called his recruiter and told her he had been canceled due to a lack of census. He said: “I want to go. I want to go to the epicenter.” At that time, the epicenter was Seattle. The recruiter put his resume in Seattle, and they called him and hired him the same day. He told them he could be there the following week since his contract had been canceled, but they told him to hold off for two weeks. He thought that was strange, since everyone said they needed help so badly, but he agreed. The following day, they called and said they were going to push him back another week. By now, it was the third week of March, he said. They called again and wanted to postpone his arrival for a fourth week. He called his recruiter again and told her Washington seemed to be pushing him off, but he heard New York was blowing up. “Cuomo’s calling nurses to come out of retirement, talking about letting graduate nurses practice without passing a state exam.” He asked her what she thought about him going to New York. She told him that would be great and put his application in New York. He was hired the same day once again. He told them he could be there on Friday, but they, too, told him to come in two weeks instead. “I was like, ‘WHAT? This is not what I’m seeing on the news.’”

He went to New York, and it was slow in the emergency department. There were some COVID patients, but he saw maybe one critical COVID case per shift. They never sent any of the staff home, and he wondered how the hospital was going to pay his contract. He was certain they would not keep him the entire two months. He was sure they would cancel him like Orlando did, because with so few patients, how could they afford to keep him? He did end up staying the entire two months, but it was not at all what he went there expecting.

As an emergency room nurse, he typically saw a ratio of four patients to one nurse at all times. As one patient is discharged, another takes his place. While he was in New York, the supposed hot spot of the virus in March and April, he might have had one patient at a time. As that one was discharged, he might or might not get another. “And that’s what it looked like across the entire emergency department,” he said.

While he was away from his family anyway, he thought he would take on some extra work on his off days, so he found a contact at a hospital in Queens, which was supposed to be the epicenter’s epicenter, he said. She told him they needed someone three days a week, and he was already working four days a week, so he thought that sounded perfect. “I thought I would do what I do, help people. That’s why I’m a nurse,” he said. He called the hospital and was told they would get him set up to go to work, but he never heard from them again. “That was after a week of me being in New York, while Cuomo is still screaming for help, and the Mercy Ship is coming in. That only stayed there for three days.”

He works for a lot of hospitals in South Florida as well. “Big hospitals! And, COVID is not my day-to-day experience,” he said. “It is not.” Even in West Palm Beach, he might have one suspected COVID patient in the emergency room. The rest are just normal things like diabetic ketoacidosis, just a normal patient load. In the past two weeks, there have been no ER positions open, because the hospital censuses are still down. “It’s not that there is a glut of nurses taking those jobs, so what is it?” he asked.

In New York, he knew some nurses, doctors and techs who caught the virus. They got sick, went home and were back two or three weeks later. “There was nothing dramatic like you see in the news.” There, they gave the antibody test to their employees and many of them would test negative and be shocked. He said to them, “Did you wear a mask? Maybe your personal protective equipment worked. Maybe it transmits like the flu does. You don’t get the flu every year, do you? No, because you’re careful around your flu patients.”

For the last 19 years, he has been required to take a course on blood-borne pathogens every other year. One of the fundamental principles he learned, that has not changed in all those years, is if you are stuck with a sharps, a needle, that was contaminated by the blood of someone with a disease, you would have a certain percentage chance of getting the disease the person has. If the patient has AIDS, the disease risk after being stuck with the needle is just over half a percent. Hepatitis is closer to 1.5%. “There is a principle telling us there has to be a certain dose,” he said. “Now, if I got a whole syringe full of contaminated blood and injected myself, the viral load would be much higher, and my risk would go crazy high, obviously.” He went on to explain that if you are around someone with the flu, and you are sitting outside, there is very little risk of transmitting anything back and forth.

He also spoke about the recent reporting on Raulerson Hospital running out of ICU beds and having to hold patients in the ER. That, he said is a perfectly normal, everyday occurrence nationwide and has been as long as he has been in this field. “When you go into a town to build anything, you build it based on the need in the area. You wouldn’t come into a small town like Okeechobee and build a 12-story skyscraper. You build based on occupancy. The same holds true for a hospital. You aren’t going to build a neurological ICU and a trauma ICU and this and that. That’s silly! You’re not going to make any money, and then to have to staff it! You’re going to build for what the community is going to require and what you can make money off of. You would want your occupancy to stay as close to 100% as possible so you can make some coin.”

He said he understood what he had to say would not be welcomed by most people. “No one joins the military or becomes a police officer or a doctor or nurse so they can do the easy, boring jobs. The type of people who do those jobs want to be where the action is. But, the facts are, from my humble, personal experience, this whole thing is not what they say it is, There were no big adventures to tell about,” he said. “What I saw on the news was never my experience. I sat around bored almost every day.”

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.

Facebook Comment