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‘Feels like we’re in combat’: Tucson respiratory therapist goes to NYC to battle virus
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‘Feels like we’re in combat’: Tucson respiratory therapist goes to NYC to battle virus

From the April's Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: 1,200+ Pima County cases, stay-home order extended series

Amy Burke had never been east of Texas when she arrived in New York City earlier this month, ready to help people sick or dying from COVID-19.

“Patient-wise, this is the sickest group of people I’ve ever seen,” the Tucson respiratory therapist said during a telephone call from Brooklyn last week. “I’ve never seen anything like it before. Nobody has.”

Burke was unsure when she first considered a temporary move to New York to run ventilators in one of the nation’s hardest-hit areas. Conversations with her best friend and her husband changed her mind. Both have military backgrounds, and they encouraged her to think of working in New York as a deployment.

And when Burke landed at John F. Kennedy Airport April 10, in a plane full of health-care workers from all over the country, it did feel that way, she said, like they were soldiers on a shared mission.

“When we landed, I wasn’t scared — I was excited,” she said. “I love my job and I’ve trained for this my whole life.”

It’s a feeling that’s continued to grow as she puts in her days at a Brooklyn hospital.

“We got into medicine because we wanted to help people,” she said. “It really feels like we’re in combat together.”

Burke, 33, said she’s fallen in love with New York City, and especially Brooklyn.

“Brooklyn is a magical city, a true melting pot,” she said. “It’s such a wonderful, wonderful place.”

People are so appreciative of health-care workers being there at this heartbreaking time, she said.

Each day, there’s a food truck outside the hospital offering free breakfast and lunch.

“They are treating us like superheroes,” she said, “and we’re just doing our job.”

Burke has been a respiratory therapist since she was 20, working in intensive care units and with asthma and cystic-fibrosis patients, but she said she’s never experienced anything like what she’s seeing in Brooklyn.

The hardest part, she said, is reaching a point where there is nothing left to do to help their patients.

“Sometimes it feels as though we are just waiting for them to die so we can clean up the vent and try to save the next patient who needs it,” she wrote on a private social media post she shares with family and friends.

“The amount of people who die is astonishing. You try not to think about the patient that you just withdrew care from while you check on the person sharing the room with them who’s also vented.”

One day, five of her patients died.

“It’s a very human thing to die. We hold their hand and try to comfort them, but it’s not the same as being with family or friends, of course,” she said. “We’re going to need help with our mental health after this is done.”

The bodies of people who died pile up sometimes, she said, before being moved to a semitrailer that’s parked behind the hospital.

Burke said she’s doing OK so far, although she has had trouble sleeping sometimes. Her hands have started shaking a bit in the evenings, perhaps her body’s way of letting off stress.

That stress is sometimes compounded by what she hears that people outside of New York are doing and saying about state shutdowns.

“COVID-19 is a horrible, horrible disease and it’s a little frustrating and heartbreaking to see when we’re here trying to keep people alive and protect ourselves,” she said. “It’s been a hot topic in the hospital. We’re all upset about it.”

But when she starts to think about that kind of thing too much, she counters it with the good stories, including one she read recently about people in a manufacturing plant who worked for 28 days straight making medical masks.

She said it’s hard for people to understand how serious this new virus is unless it affects them personally.

“If you know a health-care worker who has been working in a COVID unit and you have a conversation about it, then opinions start to shift,” she said.

The people she works with, strangers just days ago, feel like family now.

“They are among the most amazing human beings I’ve ever met,” she said. “It brings you together, doing this work. These are my brothers and sisters in health care.”

Burke was joined back east by a longtime friend, Kim Oakden, who is from Tucson but now lives in Phoenix. Oakden is at a hospital on Long Island.

The women have known one another since they attended Sahuaro High School together, graduating one year apart.

“She arrived first,” Burke said. “Then she called and said, ‘It’s crazy. Come out here so I can see a familiar face.’”

Oakden, who is also a respiratory therapist, arrived April 6 and will be going back at the end of May.

“Honestly, the whole thing has just been surreal,” Oakden said. “I don’t know if it’s a coping mechanism or not, but I try not to think about it too much.”

The friends have seen each other a couple of times so far, a half-hour drive between them.

Burke’s parents, Sissie and Eric Schrader of Tucson, are worried about their daughter but are also proud of her.

Sissie Schrader said when Burke told her she was going to New York City to work, she didn’t know if she was going to cry first or get sick to her stomach.

“She’s very brave, but this is terrifying,” Sissie Schrader said. “We’re extremely proud of her. She’s always been a gutsy girl. She has a heart of gold and she’s damn good at what she does.”

Contact reporter Patty Machelor at pmachelor@tucson.com or 806-7754. On Twitter: @pattymachstar

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