Before answering the call to the pandemic's epicenter, Jennifer Emmons formalized her funeral plans

NAPLES — When a 23-year-old coworker dies of COVID-19. When you can’t hold a dying patient’s hand because there’s no time. When you see the terror in the eyes of a person on a ventilator. When so many are dying you can’t keep track.

It changes you.

Jennifer Emmons wears an ankle bracelet — a tiny stethoscope dangling from a black cord, the same one worn by her fellow frontline nurses.

“It still ties us together,” said Emmons, a registered nurse from Naples who returned home June 29 from answering the call in April to the pandemic’s epicenter in New Jersey.

For 12 weeks, she and the other frontline nurses at Bergen New Bridge Medical Center in New Jersey were family. “We were each other’s support system,” she said. “They were the only ones we could talk to, the only ones we could be around.” Why? To prevent spreading the virus and because they were all at risk.

“We could come home to each other,” she said. Housed together in a hotel, the nurses filled shifts covering all hours. At 3 a.m. you could always find someone on the patio or in a room.

“Someone you could lean on,” said Emmons.

'A brutal death'

Emmons arrived April 20 at New Jersey’s largest hospital and licensed nursing home, overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.

“It felt like being dropped from a helicopter into the 'Twilight Zone,'” she said.

Emmons, a mother and grandmother, knew the danger before she went. A hospice nurse, she also understood the importance of putting her affairs in order — just in case. A sit-down with the local funeral director before leaving home put her mind somewhat at ease.

What she found at the medical center was much worse than she had imagined. Expecting to be a nurse manager in long-term care, she fell in with all frontline staff scrambling to do what they could. Critically ill patients died within days or hours, despite their best efforts.

Emmons described dying of COVID as “a brutal death.” Patients died alone. There was little or no time to hold a hand and you couldn’t say everything would be alright, she said, because you knew, and they knew, it would not. As a hospice nurse, you want to provide the most comfortable, compassionate end-of-life experience you can, said Emmons. Here, that was impossible.

“Every patient, every patient’s family member is a danger to you,” she said. “We were a huge danger to our patients.” She explained how that defies the compassion and trust essential in a nurse/patient relationship.

Without enough personal protective equipment, or PPE, she and other staff had to reuse gowns and wear masks much less protective than the N95 surgical ones. From back home, friends, family and local businesses shipped her care packages of masks, hand sanitizer and other protective equipment not available at the hospital.

Coming home

The adrenaline rush that never let up over 12 weeks still lingers with Emmons, who is executive director of Hospeace House comfort care home in Naples. She is trying to adjust to the relative serenity of home, spending time with her family and preparing for what she hopes will be a reopening of Hospeace House, sooner rather than later.

“You need to debrief,” she said. She is mentally and emotionally working on coming to grips with what she experienced. “It’s a process,” she said. “You need to grieve.” And that’s something she couldn’t do in the midst of it.

She and her fellow frontline nurses have returned home to upstate New York, Kansas, Memphis, and other areas around the nation. As nurses their fight is far from over.

She described the mission: “To keep the public as healthy and safe as possible.”

She said scientists and medical experts continue to learn more about the novel coronavirus, which gives her hope. She understands why people are confused and don’t know what to believe, with so much coming at them, many unknowns about the virus and uncertainty about the future.

Politics have no place in this health crisis, she said. She urges everyone to take the pandemic seriously. And work together.

“We have got to work together,” she said. “Stop nitpicking — and be united.”