Thompson grad, nurse working in NYC hospital

Published 10:35 am Wednesday, April 22, 2020

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By SCOTT MIMS / Staff Writer 

NEW YORK — Mere days ago, Kelli Kleysteuber was working as an ER nurse at UAB. Today she is on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City, working in the NYU Medical Center ER.

The 2005 Thompson High School graduate is putting in 84 hours a week for 21 straight days, after which she will have the option to either extend her contract or return home for one to two weeks before continuing. If she chooses the latter, she will have to remain in quarantine for virtually the entire time she is home.

“It just felt like the right thing to do,” Kleysteuber said when asked why she decided to make the trip. “The money’s not bad either, but it was not my main motivation.”

Kleysteuber describes the process of applying for the position and making the trip as a “whirlwind.” Her sister saw a Facebook post asking for 400 nurses, but getting hired was a lengthy process. It took three calls before Kleysteuber was able to get through, proving the old adage the third time is the charm.

“Honestly, it was like calling in on a radio station,” Kleysteuber said.

She made the call on Wednesday, April 15 and flew to New York three days later. There were 37 people on the flight—one person per row—and once the passengers were seated, a flight attendant asked those on board who were nurses to raise their hands. She then took a photo and asked permission to share it on social media.

“When I looked at the photo and saw how many hands were raised, it was amazing. It almost brought tears to my eyes,” Kleysteuber recalled.

Now, Kleysteuber calls a hotel facing Times Square her temporary home. When she looks out the window, she can see the famous lights, which sometimes make it difficult to fall asleep. But the City That Never Sleeps is almost completely shut down—the famous Rink at Rockefeller Center is roped off, as is any landmark that would typically be crowded with people.

Fortunately, Kleysteuber befriended a fellow nurse from near Florence, Alabama, who is staying in her hotel.

Her days in the ER are nothing like she has experienced before. Everyone is covered in PPE from head to toe, and there are not enough oxygen outlets on the wall to accommodate all of the patients; when this happens, oxygen tanks must be used. The wait for beds is lengthy, causing patients to remain in the ER for substantially longer than normal.

There is also a shortage of oxygen masks, and pharmacies are struggling to keep up with the demand.

“A lot of times it is chaos,” Kleysteuber said. “I’ve never had a situation where there was not enough oxygen outlets on the wall for patients.”

But most heart-wrenching of all is when older patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 and have underlying conditions are struggling to breathe, and it becomes evident that they will not survive.

“It’s just a lot harder for them to breathe. One lady said she felt like she was just suffocating,” Kleysteuber said.

Mental health counselors are on site at the hotel where Kleysteuber is staying. These are provided by her employer, Krucial Staffing. Several hundred Army soldiers are stationed at the hotel, originally for the purpose of helping to treat non-COVID-19 patients; however, Kleysteuber said there is such a great need that they are treating novel coronavirus patients as well.

Hundreds upon hundreds of meals are being donated to healthcare workers at NYU, who often opt to work through their lunch breaks, and Krucial Staffing has provided laundromat services for nurses stationed at the hotel (similar services provided by the hotel itself would be very expensive).

“Having something as simple as clean laundry is amazing,” said Kleysteuber, who must step on a sanitizing device before entering her hotel and immediately decontaminate before going anywhere.

But the real soul of New York comes to light every day at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. during medical shift changes, when quite literally the entire city erupts into applause for medical workers from their windows and doors. At the time many who would otherwise be asleep in their beds get up to participate.

Kleysteuber said the sound reverberates everywhere and is inescapable.

“It’s very moving. It feels like the whole city is behind us,” she said.