By Ryan E. Poppe
Director of Marketing and Communications
Texas Association of Nurse Anesthetists
Anne Quasnitschka, DNP, CRNA, had just left her job at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth to begin another assignment when she was notified it was now canceled due to one of Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s COVID-19 executive orders directing the postponement of all elective surgeries and procedures.
Being stuck at home without work, Quasnitschka found herself unable to fulfill her mission of promoting patient safety and the profession of nurse anesthesia. So, she began to try to fill her days with long walks around her neighborhood. She felt powerless at the thought of not being able to help.
CRNAs are highly skilled, advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) who can easily fill roles across healthcare systems. They comprise over 50 percent of the U.S. anesthesia workforce and are expert clinicians with highly specialized skills such as airway management, ventilator support, and advanced patient assessment.
At about that time Quasnitschka heard from her former boss at John Peter Smith Hospital about an opportunity to join a team he was putting together to provide relief to some of New York City’s hospitals hit hardest by the virus.
“I was just sitting at home thinking, I have all these skills to use and I know people need them, but we didn’t need them at home back in Texas at the time,” Quasnitschka said.
She packed what she thought she’d need and headed to New York City with fellow Texas colleagues to provide relief staffing and critical care to patients suffering from COVID-19.
Quasnitschka said using the term “war zone” to describe the appearance of the Brooklyn hospital where she was working would be an understatement.
She said patients showing mild symptoms of the virus have made some progress, but the survival rate for the more extreme cases remains low.
“It had become common to walk into a room where a patient was in respiratory failure or cardiac arrest every 20 minutes and sadly, they all will likely not survive,” Quasnitschka said.
“We have been using all of the limited supplies and staff on patients we believe have a good chance at survival in our critical care unit, but so far we haven’t seen any patient brought to our ward survive.”
Quasnitschka said the facility is housing four to five patients in what was once a two-patient room.
She said patients are crammed into one room, and they are all watching each stage of the virus play out in the bed next to them, including emergency procedures for someone experiencing respiratory failure and times of death.
“I spoke with a lady who watched us code this patient. She said in a horrible wheezing and rattled voice, ‘Why is everyone dying?’ then another code was called, and I had to leave her,” Quasnitschka said.
She said everyone at the hospital is constantly covered in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
“You don't have to take your PPE on and off between rooms or patients because they all have COVID-19. You're just trying to protect yourself from being exposed to the virus,” Quasnitschka said.
She said a lot of the regular staff at her New York City hospital are not working due to their or a family member’s exposure to the virus.
Meanwhile, the hospital has a patient volume in need of respiratory therapy that exceeds current capacity, all while staffing levels have been reduced by 50 percent due to COVID-19 exposures.
Quasnitschka admitted after her first day on the ground in New York City she wanted to come back to Texas.
“I thought this was the stupidest thing, like why am I risking my life?” Quasnitschka said. She said the hospital has done everything it can to create bed space and make sure they have enough ventilators on-hand to treat COVID-19 patients, but what she said they need now more than anything is nursing staff who know the type of critical care skills needed to keep patients alive.
Quasnitschka went back to the hospital the next day and realized her team wasn’t there as much for the patients as they were to take some of the pressure off the hospital’s staff. She then called her neighbors back home in Fort Worth and asked that they pick up her mail because she knew in her heart she had no choice but to stay.