Even though she was decked out in full protective gear and equipped with 17 years of critical care experience, Jeanine McCullough admits she briefly panicked the first time she was isolated in a room with a COVID-19 patient at a hospital in New York.
“When that negative pressure room door clicks shut, it’s just the two of you,” said McCullough, a 1996 graduate of Osawatomie High School. “I panicked for about 10 seconds.”
Thoughts began racing through her mind.
“Is my mask on tight enough?”
“What if it needs to be adjusted?”
“No, it’s too late, I can’t touch my face.”
It didn’t take long, though, for her years of experience as a nurse to take over and spring her into action.
“I had to fall back on my training, take a deep breath and go to work,” she said.
McCullough has spent the past month at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital in Long Island, working five 12-hour shifts each week treating the influx of coronavirus (COVID-19) patients that continue to stream in.
“They’ve added about 100 beds,” McCullough said. “They tripled the size of their hospital in two weeks.”
Earlier this year, McCullough was working in Topeka when the COVID-19 pandemic started making headlines in the United States. When she saw just how bad things had gotten in New York, she made the difficult decision to quit her job and leave her 14-year-old son with family members while she traveled to the East Coast to help her fellow nurses on the front lines.
“I felt like it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do the right thing,” she said.
She left April 12, Easter Sunday, and it didn’t take her long after landing in New York to realize she was in a different world.
After leaving the airport, she saw refrigerated trucks parked outside of a cemetery in Queens, and she realized she was now personally witnessing some of the horrific images she had seen on the nightly news.
McCullough met her project manager at the hotel, and she was working her first shift at 7 a.m. the next morning.
“It got real pretty quick,” she said.
McCullough now spends her shifts working exclusively with COVID-19 patients, suctioning airways, adjusting ventilator settings and using hand signals to communicate with her fellow nurses through door windows.
She said the most frustrating part has been dealing with the unknown aspects of the virus and the research-based treatment suggestions, which seem to change by the week. She said the worst feeling is utilizing a treatment plan that has worked on other patients but isn’t working for this particular patient.
“I’ve never felt more helpless,” she said. “We’re all flying by the seat of our pants here. Nobody has seen anything like this.”
That being said, McCullough did speak high praise of the fellow nurses on her team, as well as the doctors who value her opinion and listen to her suggestions. The nurses on her team are from all parts of the country, including Arizona, Texas, Florida and even Hawaii.
“It’s a real group effort,” she said.
When she’s not working, McCullough said she is combing through medical articles, trying to learn everything she can about COVID-19 and how to defeat it.
“Reading research, that’s how I fall asleep each night,” she said. “The human body is a fascinating thing, and what this virus is doing to it is just insane. I want people to know how sick, truly sick, people are with COVID.”
The patient McCullough has spent the most time with is a man in his mid 50s who’s been in the hospital for 55 days.
“I didn’t think he was going to live,” she said.
Recently, though, the man’s condition has improved, and he’s now more alert and communicating even though he’s still on a ventilator.
Although the elderly and those with weakened immune systems are the most vulnerable to the virus, McCullough said she has treated patients of all ages.
“It’s an equal opportunity destroyer,” she said.
Back home in Osawatomie, McCullough’s parents, Jacque and Larry Eisenhower, are staying close to their phones as they await updates from their daughter. Despite being worn out at the end of a long shift, McCullough tries to make sure she sends a text to them as often as possible, even if it’s as short as: “Still alive, just exhausted.”
That’s all Jacque needs to hear.
“I’m proud, but I’m worried,” she said. “I just want her to come home and be safe.”
Larry expressed his pride in a different manner.
“She’s a bad ass,” he said.
In addition to support from family, McCullough and her fellow nurses are also being lifted up by the community around the hospital.
“They cater our meals every shift, and there is a parade every Friday in which they drive around the hospital and honk,” she said.
McCullough initially signed up for six weeks, but she already has agreed to an extension because she said the need is still there.
While the numbers may have dropped some, McCullough said the hospital is still seeing a steady stream of COVID-19 patients.
“Initially, if a room opened up, we’d immediately get another [patient],” she said. “Now, it’s maybe open for half a shift before it’s filled.”
McCullough plans to stay as long as she’s needed, especially because she is gaining valuable experience that she believes she’ll be able to use to help others in the future.
“What I’m learning out here is priceless,” she said. “To be a part of this learning curve is fantastic.”
She does plan to return to her home near Lawrence by the Fourth of July because she promised her teenage son she would do just that.
In the meantime, she’ll continue to focus on her work and sleep, because that’s about all she has time to do. And although she appreciates all of the support, she said she feels like she’s just doing her job.
It’s a job she knew she wanted to pursue ever since she was a high school student watching a firefighter pull children out of the rubble and hand them to nurses following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.
It’s a job she grew to love during a mission trip to Guatemala while she was in nursing school.
And it’s a job she’ll gladly keep doing wherever she is most needed.
“Everybody keeps thanking me,” she said. “I really don’t think I’m doing anything that special.”