Every night at dusk, outside Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens, a mother and a daughter spend a few quick moments in a tight but hasty embrace.
The daughter is relieved her mother’s OK. The mother is hoping her daughter will be.
For Ona Onyia, 23, and Uchenna Onyia-Murphy, 49, this is the only time they can check on each other before they face the scores of coronavirus patients wheeled through the hospital doors.
The mother and daughter from Arkansas are among a wave of hundreds of out-of-state nurses who descended on New York City to work at overwhelmed hospitals.
They decided to go to Elmhurst Hospital, called “the epicenter of the epicenter” of the coronavirus outbreak, for several reasons.
“Our desire to help triumphed our fears,” Onyia says. “Seeing how understaffed and overwhelmed New York hospitals were, we wanted to help and learn so we can help our hospitals back home if things got out of control.”
They’ve had moments of grief and clarity
For as long as she can remember, Onyia has always wanted to follow in her mother’s nursing footsteps.
Her mother left a bad marriage in Nigeria and came to the US, where she attended college and works as a traveling nurse practitioner. Onyia got her degree at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and is a registered nurse.
When her mother decided to leave their shared home in Little Rock and go to New York, Onyia did not hesitate either. She took a leave of absence from her job, packed her bags and followed her two days later.
That was the first week of April. Since then, Onyia says, they’ve never seen anything like it.
“I’ve seen more death here than in my entire career. People going from talking to being put on the ventilator within minutes,” she says. “People are dying alone because no family is allowed in the hospital.”
But even with the grief, there have been moments of joy and clarity.
Like when they finally remove tubes from patients who are well enough to breathe on their own. And the valuable lessons that come with working in the nation’s largest city in the middle of a pandemic.
“It has been mentally and physically exhausting, but rewarding in so many ways,” Onyia says. “This virus will be around for a while, and this experience has fully prepared me to help my home state if it has outbreaks. I feel like I can work anywhere after this.”
Queens has the largest number of cases in NY
New York state is the epicenter of the country’s outbreak with nearly 350,000 confirmed cases and over 28,000 deaths. That translates to roughly 144 deaths for every 100,000 residents.
As the number of coronavirus cases have fallen in some states, New York’s remains high largely because of its metropolitan area’s density and population.
Queens has more than 58,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, the most of any county in the state. Mayor Bill De Blasio has said Elmhurst has “borne the brunt more than any other hospital in the city.”
Out-of-state nurses have provided much needed relief in a state that has more coronavirus cases than any country in the world.
Like Onyia and her mother, most were hired by staffing agencies with incentives that included free housing and crisis pay that’s substantially higher than their usual salaries.
“Over the past couple of months, we have treated an unprecedented number of severely ill patients, and the additional support that these nurses have provided has been crucial in terms of increasing capacity in our ICUs and in several other key departments,” says Joann Gull, senior executive director at NYC Health and Hospitals/Elmhurst.
“At a time of immense crisis, these heroic healthcare providers have helped us ensure that we can continue to adequately meet the needs of our community.”
There have been challenges, too
A new job in a new city in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic comes with its own challenges.
Language barriers from working with more diverse patients from all over the world is one, Onyia says. Unlike Arkansas, she adds, she’s seen patients from every country you can think of.
At the height of the pandemic, Onyia would watch patients fill a strained intensive care unit and sometimes wonder whether she made the right choice to be there.
“I came in at the peak. Everything was pretty rough. There were moments when it was so overwhelming,” she says. “But just having my mom with me has been really helpful.”
At the hospital, they work opposite shifts. Onyia starts her overnight shift at 7 p.m., the same time her mother ends her day shift. Both work 12 hour shifts, sometimes continuously for six days, and live a floor apart in the same hotel. On the rare times when their off days overlap, they sit in each other’s rooms and discuss their experiences over seafood takeout. Other days, they do yoga to relax. Sometimes, they pray.
They never got a chance to spend Mother’s Day together. But for now, their belated celebration will have to wait.
Despite the job’s intensity, they are not ready to leave just yet. They recently extended their contracts by another six weeks.
CNN’s Linh Tran contributed to this report