MORRISVILLE, N.Y. — Before she goes in for her night shift as a nurse, Kirsten Krause does a video chat with her four-year-old son, Nicholas. He runs around the house with the phone showing her his kittens and the puzzles he is working on at home. She tells him she loves him and will be home as soon as she is done helping people, fighting back tears as he blows her a kiss goodbye.
The daily calls keep her going.
Three weeks ago, Krause left her job as a nurse at St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center in Syracuse to join nurses and health care workers on the front lines in Michigan, as the world struggles to contain the coronavirus pandemic.
Krause, a 2018 SUNY Morrisville nursing graduate, is now working as an RN at St. Mary’s Mercy Hospital in Livonia, Michigan, about 20 miles outside of Detroit. The hard-hit state has the fourth largest number of COVID-19 deaths in the country as of May 4.
She’ll be helping at St. Mary’s Mercy Hospital for at least a month, which could turn into longer as the hospital assesses its needs.
Life changed quickly for the Morrisville resident in what seemed like an instant. Krause had just graduated with top honors with her BSN from Chamberlain University College of Nursing and was making plans for the future, when the pandemic changed her course.
As her job at St. Joseph’s was enforcing furloughs, Krause had 24 hours to decide if she wanted to redeploy to a sister Trinity Health Hospital. She chose Detroit.
“I knew that I wasn’t going to be happy with my decision to furlough if I could be helping out more,” she said. “Other nurses are getting incredibly sick and dying or they’ve become so overworked that they can’t go home and function like they should. I also wanted to help other nurses who had dedicated so much of their lives to help care for these incredibly sick people.”
She packed her bags and headed to the airport, leaving her home and the life she loved behind.
“I was terrified to go. I didn’t know where I was originally going, who else would sign up, how long the assignment would be, or what floors I’d be expected to work on,” Krause said. “But none of that mattered; I had to go.”
While her boyfriend, Nick, is tucking their son in at night, Krause is hundreds of miles away preparing for a demanding 12-plus hour shift.
She cares for three to six patients, usually COVID-19 positive, a mix of young and old.
“I feel that the compromised elderly patients are hit harder because of other comorbidities, but the actual virus can affect anyone,” she explained.
It’s emotionally difficult to see — sick people whose family members are unable to visit. She updates them frequently, as their loved one’s condition could change at any time.
“I’ve seen patients go from feeling great to being unable to catch their breath and requiring immediate medical attention all in a split second,” she said.
The emotional demands are trying for health care personnel, the only link those with the virus have to the outside world.
“Here, they need that emotional connection more than ever,” Krause said. She’s there to provide it.
Every day poses a risk of her being exposed to the virus, but her intrinsic desire to help outweighs that fear.
The PPE she wears is extensive, consisting of an N95 with a surgical mask over it, face shield, hair net, gown and gloves.
“It is incredibly uncomfortable and makes it hard to breathe,” Krause said. “You’re also usually really hot and sticky.”
Downtime is well-earned and appreciated.
The studio hotel room where Krause is staying, five minutes from the hospital, is also close to two coworkers who joined her from St. Joseph’s. Their company helps to ease the loneliness of missing home and the stress of the work they are doing.
Krause’s ability to persevere is a trait she started building as a student at SUNY Morrisville.
“Morrisville has been known to prepare strong nurses,” she said. “They (faculty) teach you how to think critically by combining your education with reasoning so that you can come up with a solution that most benefits your patient.
“This amazing college has been life-changing for me. I wouldn’t be redeployed to Michigan as an RN if it weren’t for the nursing education I received at SUNY Morrisville,” Krause said in a Facebook post.
It wasn’t exactly the career she planned on growing up.
“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life, but it needed to be something that really mattered,” she said. “I realized nursing could provide me with so much that I wanted — job security and a way to help care for people. Now that I’m here, I feel like nursing was always my best option.”
The journey was not an easy one as she juggled working full-time, taking classes and her responsibilities as a parent.
“Trying to find the time to sleep after work, do homework, be a good parent, interact with friends and family, try to get caught up with housework and drive 45 minutes home after having a difficult shift; it felt impossible at times,” Krause said.
But it was all worth it in the end.
“Knowing that I helped someone get their parent or child or even best friend back makes it all worth it,” she said. “They will never know me personally, and that’s OK, but the small sacrifice of leaving everyone I know and love helped make it possible for someone else to go back home.”
A lot has happened in the weeks she has been gone. The structure of the hospital where she worked has changed, the family’s four kittens have grown considerably and so have her son’s language skills.
“He’s speaking full sentences and is able to comprehend so much and it’s only been a few weeks,” Krause said. “I can carry on a full conversation with him and he can respond back. It’s crazy and a little heartbreaking.”
Calls from home, the sound of her son’s voice and encouragement from family and friends fortify her strength and motivation.
“I was given the gift of being raised by both my grandma and mom, women who have shown me the value of hard work and what it means to unconditionally love someone,” she said. “I have siblings who check in on me frequently and remind me to keep going, a son who thinks the world of me and can’t wait until he can get a mommy date, and a boyfriend who would love nothing more than to see me come home safe and sound.”
She looks forward to returning to help on the front lines at home and seeing her family.
“I can’t wait to cuddle with my son,” Krause said. “After that, a nice glass of wine and a home-cooked meal sounds perfect.”
She makes a point not to shine all of the light only on the work nurses are doing, crediting so many others.
“With the help of everyone in the hospital, from respiratory therapy, physical and occupational therapy, dietary, doctors, nurses, patient care technicians and environmental services, we all have a common goal of trying to help these people and we need to all be equally recognized.”
She shies away from being considered a hero.
“Hero? No,” she answered. “I am just so proud to be a nurse and work alongside some of the bravest people I know.”