NEW YORK CITY — Ashley (York) Kush’s hazel eyes are all that’s visible behind her goggles and shield as she steps into the massive white COVID-19 tent in a New York City hospital parking lot.
The 33-year-old Louisburg resident is covered from head to toe in personal protective equipment (PPE) as she starts her 15-hour day while thousands of people are just sitting down for their morning coffee.
Kush is a nurse practitioner in the emergency room at Overland Park Regional. At this moment, though, the volunteer healthcare professional is ready for whatever the day throws at her on the front line of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in New York City.
“This is a pandemic,” Kush says. “There’s no practice run for how this is going to go.”
Those hazel eyes have seen plenty in the three weeks since Kush arrived in the Big Apple. Often it’s not pretty.
“I know that COVID is very real. I’ve looked it in the eye more times than I would like to have,” Kush said. “I’m very fearful of it myself, and I’m a somewhat young, healthy person. I’m more fearful for people who can’t defend themselves — people who are compromised with cancer, diabetes, heart conditions, lung conditions.”
She moves among the sick, the weary, the lonely and the scared.
“We’ve seen all of that here,” she said.
Kush had prepared for the experience the best she could.
“Anybody that had come in with those types of symptoms at our hospital at home, I was very ready and willing to take those patients and better understand this illness,” Kush said. “So when I walked in, it was just like being at home except the numbers were much, much more and everybody we saw had symptoms. It wasn’t, ‘This patient possibly has it.’ It’s, ‘All these patients over here have COVID.’”
Kush said the New York City hospitals have treated her very well.
“I never felt unsafe in the hospitals here in New York,” Kush said. “They offered us plenty of PPE. The only thing you could ever see on me was my eyes, and that was under my goggles. My hair was covered. I had the big bunny suit, the white suit, on. I had gloves, I had shoe covers and on top of that I had goggles, a shield, a (N)95 mask with another mask covering that, so I never felt unsafe which also gave me the courage that I felt so protected that I wasn’t afraid to help these people.”
Kush said she volunteered to go to New York City, with the full blessing and support of Overland Park Regional, to help as many people as she could.
“Sometimes it’s not always pharma-logical needs that we as healthcare providers need to give — it’s emotional support and physical touch and just knowing that we are there and we care and that we’ll pass on messages that they want us to say because their family members can’t come back here with them.”
Thousands of cases do not have a happy ending. More than 17,000 New Yorkers have died from coronavirus as of Tuesday, April 28.
“Several of us have sat there with these people in their final moments, and they’ve told us to tell their family members things, and we always do,” Kush said. “I think that just being there and feeling that emotion as you’re in that moment — telling these family members how much they loved them and that they said to tell you this. I was there. I never left. Those things mean so much to families, especially when they can truly feel your sincerity.”
Kush talked about the importance of social distancing with coronavirus.
“You have to think of more than just yourself,” she said. “This could affect any of us. It doesn’t discriminate. COVID doesn’t care if you’re young. I’ve seen a healthy 21 year old die. We see a lot of elderly pass away from this, mostly I think because they often have compromising conditions.”
COVID-19 is different than a lot of other illnesses in that a person could walk around with the illness and not have any symptoms for five to seven days and infect so many people, she said.
“The contagion rate is very high, and that’s the concern,” Kush said. “If everybody gets it at the same time, there’s just simply not enough resources and then it becomes an issue of who lives. How do we choose that? Don’t put that on us. We don’t want to pick who gets the ventilator and who doesn’t.”
Kush and her good friend, nurse practitioner Stacie Kelly from Gardner, were put into leadership roles when they arrived. They are staying at a hotel near Central Park in Manhattan that is housing about 900 nurses.
The staffing company that sent the pair to New York has grown from 15 employees to more than 4,000 workers in about five weeks, Kush said.
“I think they saw Stacie and I had some leadership in the past,” Kush said. “They all come from a business background and realized it would be easier for me and Stacie to speak to nurses, and speak to chief medical officers, directors of hospitals, chief nursing officers, and so they placed us in this role.”
Kush and Kelly were placing nurses in 17 hospitals in New York City.
“The staffing company found there just wasn’t a whole lot of direction or communication between the company and the hospitals, so we kind of filled that gap,” Kush said. “So it really worked out well for everybody involved. Everybody saw benefits across the board.”
Kush and Kelly also worked the floor while serving in a leadership role at the facilities.
“We would work with the nurses on the floor side-by-side, obviously to help them but also to see what things were like and try to be partners with them. You know, the best kind of leader is right there in the trenches with you.”
Kush said she has not been alone on this journey because of the love and support she has received from the community.
“The town of Louisburg is amazing. I could seriously cry talking about it,” said Kush, a 2005 graduate of Louisburg High School. “If you knew how much stuff Louisburg has sent me, it just brings me to tears.”
Kush has received boxes and boxes of items from the community, for herself and to distribute to others.
“Today, alone, I got a box from Louisburg that had 200 to 300 colored papers from little kids that said, ‘You are my healthcare hero. God bless you. We are praying for you from Kansas’ to stick on all the healthcare providers’ doors” at the hotel.
Kush walked the hotel halls, sticking these and other messages on all the nurses’ doors.
“One of the nurses posted a message (on Facebook) that said, ‘Whoever the angel was who left this on my door you have no idea how much I needed this. Thank you so much and God bless.”
The child who made the message will never know it, Kush said, but that small act of kindness means so much, especially on day 11 when nurses are exhausted and in need of rejuvenation.
“Louisburg collected in a matter of four to six hours 20 to 30 pairs of scrubs for me to take on this trip. I got a phone call at 2 on Thursday afternoon while I was at work and I didn’t get off work until 9 p.m. My plane left the next day at noon, so there was no time to prepare. Louisburg prepared me.
“Vohs Pharmacy donated a whole slew of anything I would ever need on my travels, which I have found so useful because my face broke out from the mask,” Kush said. “At 10 o’clock the other night, after I got home from my shift, I dug in there and there was some Benadryl. It saved my day.”
Local veterinarian Aaron Stohs shipped several big boxes of items that Louisburg had collected and he paid the shipping cost out of his own pocket, she said.
Kush’s lifelong friend Katie (Pemberton) Harris, who works at Elliott Insurance in Louisburg, helped organize the donations. She thanked the community for all their support.
In addition to raising money for scrubs and other items, Harris said snacks and other nonperishables were being dropped off, along with cash donations.
“We had enough money left over to buy a couple of Keurig machines and K-cups and shipped them there,” Harris said. “We raised over $1,800, and that was within about a two- or three-day period.”
Harris said volunteers also organized a meal train for Ashley’s husband Harrison and their children, Lucas, 4, and Jacob, 23 months.
Kush, who has signed on for four weeks, plans to come home on May 2 and cannot wait to see her family. She will have to spend the first week of her 14-day quarantine in a hotel. If asymptomatic, she will spend the second week at home.
“It was a three-week assignment, and I extended it to four weeks, and I think with their hopes of me staying a little bit longer,” Kush said. “But with those two little boys at home, I just can’t. It’s so hard. They ask me, ‘Mom, are you going to be home for dinner?’ It breaks my heart.”
Kush said the boys were a little confused, but she thinks her 4-year-old Lucas understands.
“He said, ‘Mom, I’ll get to see you in 19 sleeps.’”
Kush said her husband has been very supportive.
“Harrison is amazing. I’ve told everybody he’s the true hero,” Kush said. “If I didn’t have his solid support at home, I couldn’t be here to help others. He never once ever tried to stop me from coming here to help others. If anything, he only pushed me forward. ‘You need to do what you can do to help as many people as you can.’ He’s always been that way, and I’m so thankful for it.”
She said Harrison also supported her when she and Kelly went to Uganda in 2014 to help out during the Ebola virus epidemic.
“We were in the clinic there, and it was totally different than what we’re doing in New York,” Kush said. “We were doing more family practice type things. We were helping like 500 people a day out in the areas where there is no electricity.”
She discovered her love of helping in that Third World country made her volunteer for the New York trip with no hesitation.
“It fills a cup that I didn’t know I needed filled (in Uganda),” Kush said.
Kush said New Yorkers are starting to live their lives again.
“In the past two days, New York is just totally different,” Kush said. “When we arrived it was desolate and quiet and eerie. These past two days as you’re coming back to the hotel from the hospitals, everyone’s out. Starbucks opened today and there were people on their laptops drinking coffee. It almost looked a little bit normal.”
Kush said she is thankful for the gifts the Lord has blessed her with so she could serve New York City.
“I am so happy to be here, I am so honored to be here,” Kush said. “I think more than anything I could have done for somebody, they’re doing something for me. This place has changed me for the better. It opens a whole new part of your heart.”