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When Pumpkin and Greyhound rolled up to the Minnewaska Lodge, I instantly sensed their passion, enthusiasm and grit. A dynamic and energetic duo, it was only moments before they began sharing unfathomable stories of their frontlines experiences. They were an amazing combination of matter-of-fact and bold, yet vulnerable and open. Meeting them was the first time I really recognized how different the experience of a healthcare worker has been during the pandemic, compared to my relatively safe and sequestered time at home. Our conversations have stuck with me since the program, so I reached out to them to learn a little bit more about their unique experiences over the past months.
Pumpkin and Greyhound are both Physician Assistants at Northwell Health Long Island Jewish Hospital. They are also mothers, wives, daughters, friends and committed community members. Here’s what they had to say about their experience working on the frontlines of this pandemic.
06: Hey friends! It’s great to reconnect. Let’s start by getting a better picture of what it was like in your hospital during the peak of the pandemic in New York. How was it different than during “normal” times?
Greyhound: The pandemic was like nothing I had ever seen in my life while practicing medicine. Our focus became trying to save many critical patients at the same time and worrying if we would have enough equipment and respirators to handle the influx of new patients. The virus was an unpredictable “monster”. Treatment was uncertain, outcomes were uncertain. Young patients you were sure would survive would be deceased when returning for your next shift. I have never seen so many patients become critical at the same time. During our “normal” times we speak to our patients without masks, gowns, and face shields. They can see us and we can see them. We didn’t look like aliens. Outcomes in normal times are often predictable and treatment options have been defined and studied. This time, we didn’t have effective treatment. I was not prepared for how overwhelming this pandemic would be.
Pumpkin: Agreed. The atmosphere was confusing and overwhelming. No one knew exactly what to expect or what was going to happen. The surge of the virus was terrifying. We did not know how much we didn’t know. We were running all over the place trying to accommodate the unpredictable. There is no comparing the pandemic to “normal” times. People don’t realize how good things are at “normal” times until they experience how it can be in difficult times: the times when you simply appreciate your families and friends, being healthy, having food on the table, and your dignity.
06: I can’t even imagine how that must’ve felt. What were some of the primary stressors at work that you experienced while providing care to COVID patients? And how did you cope with it all?
Pumpkin and Greyhound: There were so many. The large amount of sick people and the extent of their sicknesses. The thought that any of these sick people could be my family or relative. Not being able to treat or talk to my patients without a mask, gown, gloves, or face shield. Not being able to provide effective or evidence-based treatment. The speed at which the pandemic grew, and the fear that it will never end…the fear of the unknown.
Quiet hallways, and the seclusion…Patients were isolated. We were isolated. It felt inhuman.
Pumpkin: No one knows how strong they are until being strong is the only choice. I did what I could to get through the pandemic “hell”. One thing that definitely helped me get through it was the realization that you should not try to grasp or predict the pandemic situation; just do your best and go forward.
06: Wow. I can’t imagine. What about when you left the hospital – how has the pandemic impacted your home and daily life?
Pumpkin: The COVID pandemic absolutely impacted everyone, including my family. My younger son has been sad about being excluded from social life and his friends. My older son seems to have been handling it well comparatively. My husband has been affected the most; anxiety and panic hit him hard. No matter how the whole family was affected, I continued to work and do my daily responsibilities. Someone had to stay strong and that was me.
Greyhound: We’ve been living in a world of fear: Friends and family gatherings came to a complete halt. We remained very isolated because I worked in the hospital. Some days my children would cry worrying that I would become infected with the virus at work. I remained strong knowing I was doing what I had to do, but time with my family had changed. There was this constant fear of who would become infected next and their potential outcomes. I witnessed so much in the hospital, but there was no outlet for stress. We couldn’t escape the pandemic at home, or anywhere in our lives. There was no way to relax our minds.
06: How did you find out about First Descents, and what led you to apply for our Hero Recharge programs?
Greyhound: I was walking my dog one day and realized I could only handle so much. My strength was beginning to decrease and I was starting to feel the effects of isolation. I received an email from First Descents, and although I will admit it seemed too good to be true, I really knew I needed a “recharge”. Everything had started to get to me personally and when I went to the website the pictures made me smile. So, I took a chance and asked my friend Tetyana if she would join me on this adventure we knew nothing about.
Pumpkin: Exactly. When Stacey received an email about First Descents she asked me if I was interested in going to the Rock Climbing program. I knew I needed to go.
06: That’s awesome! Were you nervous?
Pumpkin: I was excited going into the program. I knew that a rock climbing experience would be one of a kind, and that I should grab this opportunity and make most out of it.
Greyhound: I was very nervous, yet excited. It was the first time in over 20 years I was doing something for myself without any stress of family, COVID-19, or work. I felt as if finally someone cared about me and the work I had done. It was an awesome feeling. I had never been rock climbing, but I love a challenge because it helps me to forget other stressors in my life. Being a middle aged female, I thought this would be something to make me proud.
06: How did it go?
Pumpkin: My experience was amazing. I felt like a new person after the program, like I had been away for at least a month. I learned what it is to relax and enjoy things without worrying about someone else, like the three men in the family being bored, hungry, or needing support in another way.
Greyhound: This trip was more than I had expected. All the stress and guilt I had felt throughout the pandemic disappeared almost immediately. I didn’t think about my family, work, or my students for the first time in months. I never realized how stress-relieving carving a pumpkin, or sitting around a fire, or giving myself a nick-name could be. I would never dream of doing these things on my own. I felt healed by the end of the first night and back to my strong self. I spent time hiking and rock climbing with people I didn’t even know who immediately became close friends. I felt so good about myself for accomplishing something I thought was impossible. This was so different from my feelings of failure during the pandemic when I was unable to make things better.
06: Wow. It sounds like there were some really powerful moments for you both on this program. Does a specific memory stand out?
Pumpkin: I remember being in the middle of climbing a route and feeling very tired. I knew that I did not have enough strength to climb to the top. I said, “That’s it. I have to go down. I cannot do it.” At that moment I heard from the bottom, “Yes, you can do it. Take a moment, try to rest a bit, and then go for it and climb to the top. Go pumpkin! Go pumpkin! You can do it!” All that support was coming from the Alpine Endeavors team and my healthcare worker colleagues. I did it, I climbed to the top, and I was so proud of myself. Actually, no – we did it together, as a team. It was incredible.
Greyhound: I remember climbing a route called the “chimney”. I was so nervous about falling and failing, something I really hate about myself. Our guides and the rest of the team were supporting me at the bottom, cheering “Don’t give up! You got this!” Huggy, our guide, pulled on my harness and said “I got you.” It felt so good knowing that someone really had my back! I needed that. I think I lost that feeling during the pandemic. It is so hard to support others when you are unsure of things yourself.
It felt so good knowing that someone really had my back! I needed that. I think I lost that feeling during the pandemic. It is so hard to support others when you are unsure of things yourself.
My FD family gave me the strength I needed to go on and reach the top, and ultimately begin to support other members of the team as they climbed to the top. I was reminded of the need to support and be supported. I actually started to cry at the top over what I had accomplished and how I had not let fear get in my way. That support I was given was exactly what I needed to recharge.
06: Honestly, that sounds pretty transformative.
Greyhound: It was. This program came to me in a time when I needed it most. As I am the only worker in my family with six children, it is vital that I remain strong to support them. The few hours I spent rock climbing and the support provided by the First Descents team recharged me and gave me the strength to get back up and continue on. I was beginning to lose that. Now when we’re confronted with COVID patients and family, I know how important it is to support others and accept support in return as well. It can really change us and promote healing. I never realized that!
06: What an incredible takeaway. Were there any other powerful lessons from this program?
Pumpkin: The biggest takeaway from my rock climbing program is that everything is possible. You just have to set a goal for yourself, and do your best and beyond to reach it. Moving forward I will be focusing more on my strengths and building it up by putting in my skills and knowledge.
Greyhound: My biggest take away from this program is to try not to put the world and responsibilities on my shoulders. Although inner strength is an amazing quality, it is important to look to others for support. At one point Totes was climbing. She was scared and nervous. I felt a “recharge” at this point as I supported her climbing as she had supported me. When she made it I think I felt happier for her than anything else. I have learned that by supporting others and accepting support I can rebuild my inner strength.
I also learned that I too would like to volunteer for this program and give to others what I have been given: the gift of inner strength, happiness, and being able to conquer the unknown. This program was one of the best days away I have had in my life.
06: I’m so glad to hear that. I had an amazing time, too! Do you think this program would be valuable for other healthcare workers?
Pumpkin: Yes, absolutely. The powerful energy, the mental relaxation, the feeling of your soul being at peace, the joy of being close to nature, and just the feeling of being important; all of these features would be very valuable for my colleagues and other healthcare workers.
Greyhound: I think this program is exactly what stressed, overwhelmed health care workers need. I felt “re-charged”, at peace, and relaxed. The Yoga class was amazing, and the rock climbing experience was exactly what I needed. Nature is so relaxing. It was nice to totally get away from the craziness of everyday life and work. I have not felt so relaxed and renewed in a long time. COVID-19 has affected everyone, especially the health care providers. This mentally relaxing break was exactly what I needed. I’m so glad I answered that email! I have learned valuable lessons that will last a lifetime. Don’t ever give up on your team, support everyone, and together all things are within reach (literally) and able to be accomplished. I learned I need my team. Thank you so much for this wonderful experience. I highly suggest this for anyone who feels isolated and defeated in this pandemic world.
06: Wow. I’m so glad you each had such a recharging experience. I can’t thank you both enough for taking the time to chat with me, but even more than that, I can’t thank you enough for the care you have provided at the national epicenter of this pandemic. We are so grateful.