Part 3 Of A Series
People who have had the good fortune to call Vermillion home for a length of time likely will remember Patrick Ireland, who stood out during his years at Vermillion High School for not only being an excellent student but also for his unique singing talent.
After graduating from VHS in 2000 and attending Lawrence University's conservatory of music, that voice compelled Ireland to move to New York City to pursue a singing career.
“I have been working here as a freelance classical singer since then,” Ireland said. “A few years ago, I went back to school for ultrasound because I wanted to have a side career that provided health insurance and a reliable paycheck between gigs.
“I had zero science background so it was a bit of a leap of faith, but it has been incredibly rewarding. I enjoy it much more than I was expecting to and it has made life as a singer much less stressful so I do both now. I graduated from my ultrasound school in 2018 and have been working in this field for only about two years now at one of the largest hospitals in the city.”
HIs second career has placed Ireland on the front lines as New York City continues to battle a deadly enemy: COVID-19-19.
“As the outbreak occurred in New York City there was initially a lot of confusion and it was amazing to me how quickly we became inundated with these patients. Because of this there was a period of time where we had been imaging patients who later were found to have COVID-19,” Ireland said. “Because no one knew, PPE hadn’t been worn and we had many techs put into quarantine. At first, we started tracking who interacted with what patients so that if a patient later tested positive that worker could be quarantined.”
At first, health care workers and visitors signed into a patient’s room as part of that tracking.
“However, after the first few weeks almost every patient in our hospital was COVID-19 positive or suspected and they stopped tracking and quarantining based on exposure and moved to quarantining only if a worker developed symptoms,” Ireland said. “Otherwise, every worker in the hospital would probably have ended up in quarantine. I also just want to take a moment to say, early it was being reported that this was a virus that was only a big problem for the elderly or very sick. This is not what I am seeing at my hospital.
“We have had patients of all ages who are very sick with COVID-19 -- many who don't have other illnesses that contribute. This is absolutely not an illness that only affects or is killing elderly people.”
Not long after COVID-19-19’s arrival in New York City, Ireland and his co-workers received daily video briefings at the hospital.
“These have been very helpful in staying informed of the changes happening in the hospital both in terms of treatment and policy. I will also say that amidst everything that has been going on, I have personally stopped consuming most news and have detached greatly from social media, only checking it occasionally during the month,” he said. “I needed my downtime from work to be restful and found the news and social media to be too stressful. I also feel like it is so hard to discern what is even true or real anymore online and I couldn't be spending my whole day off researching every article I read to find out if the information in it was even accurate.”
The inaccuracies found on social media, he said, made the briefings at the hospital even more valuable to Ireland by keeping him updated on the pandemic and how it was affecting his workplace.
“Some of the actions taken early on were to stop all nonemergent outpatient surgeries and eventually visitors were no longer allowed in the hospital except for certain situations. For a while that extended even to spouses/partners of women giving birth although they are now allowed,” he said. “I felt so bad for those women who had to give birth alone without someone with them during that period of time. The hospital was also doing everything it could to increase patient capacity as it quickly became clear that we were going to become inundated with very, very sick patients.”
Ireland describes his workplace as an “amazing institution” and he is impressed with how it has handled this situation and adapted day to day and weekly to these unprecedented times.
“But just like everywhere in the city at the beginning, we just didn't know enough about the virus and we were very under prepared. PPE shortage has been a constant worry. Even things like disinfectants that we use to clean our imaging machines are now kept locked up,” he said. “And, we have had to reuse used n95 masks which prior to this were one-time use. I know that in particular has been extremely stressful for healthcare workers -- to not feel protected while we try to help these patients. These masks are also now something we have to get from a supervisor. But I do feel lucky to work where I work. Some other hospitals had completely run out of some PPE and resorted to improvising with things like trash bags and bandanas and things like that. We have not had to go to that extreme.”
A COVID-19 Center
At the height of the COVID-19-19 crisis in New York City which was not long ago, the Manhattan hospital where Ireland works had over 2,500 COVID-19 inpatients with about 700 on ventilators in intensive care units.
“We have had a giant refrigerated semi-truck parked outside the building to accommodate the bodies of patients who have passed away as our morgue doesn't have anywhere near the capacity needed for what we are experiencing,” he said. “Basically, our hospital has become a COVID-19 center and while we do have some areas for non COVID-19 patients, most floors have been converted into floors for COVID-19 patients and they are the vast majority of our patient population at the moment.
For example, Ireland said, the hospital’s psychiatric and pediatric inpatients were moved to different facilities so that those areas could be made available to treat COVID-19 patients.
“One of the ways my department adapted was to change our hours to longer, less frequent shifts. So I have been working 13-hour shifts which are exhausting and long but I preferred it as it meant having to commute less and risk exposure in public transportation,” he said. “Eventually, hotels were made available to us through the hospital and so I have been staying in a hotel in midtown now for almost a month both as a means to reduce exposure to myself during my commute but also to protect my family at home.”
Being separated from family is difficult, Ireland said.
“But it is also comforting knowing that I don't have to worry about bringing something home and getting them sick. During my time off I try to do what I can to keep my mind off of work. It is hard not to bring it home with you -- what you have seen and being worried about if you may have become infected with COVID-19 that day and what that could mean,” he said. “So, I try to distract myself and have found my music background a great outlet for this. I have actually been writing a song about my experience during this time.”
Access to testing, especially in the beginning of COVID-19-19’s spread in New York City, has been limited and for a while was only available for patients with severe symptoms, Ireland said.
“However, slowly as testing ability has increased, they have opened testing up to different populations and now are allowing healthcare workers who don't have symptoms but have been in contact with COVID-19 patients to get tested, '' he said. “There was a time earlier on where I did get put on quarantine due to having COVID-19-like symptoms.”
Ireland experienced GI issues, a near constant headache for days, fever, and extreme fatigue that had him sleeping almost all day.
“After about a week, though, my symptoms subsided and I was able to go back to work. But they were very careful about making sure that I was symptom-free before interacting with other people again. I will be doing the blood test to see if I have developed antibodies soon as I would like to know if I had it or not, or if I just had something else,” he said. “The problem with this virus is the symptoms are so broad and can mimic everything from the common cold to allergies to labor symptoms in pregnant women. So, testing becoming more readily available is vital and that does seem to be finally happening.”
Many of Ireland’s co-workers became ill with COVID-19 and were on temporary leave.
“One of them developed pneumonia. Others I work with have lost family members to the virus. We have had employees at our hospital die from this virus. I remember the day I found out someone we actually work with and see every day had passed away from COVID-19,” he said. “I just couldn't believe it. It didn't seem real. It still doesn't. It was obviously devastating but it was also terrifying having it hit so close to home.”
Ireland said it is hard to process and deal with the tragic side of COVID-19 “when we are all so exhausted and needed. I am sure we are all in a form of shock.
“But I am extremely blessed to have a very tight knit team that I work with and we have been a huge support base for each other. I really don't know how I would be getting through this without them. We have all definitely had moments of panic and anxiety and tears,” he said. “We all are constantly worried about if that last patient exposed us. Will we get sick? Will we die? Or will we be ok but get our family sick? Will they die?”
Ireland said one of his coworkers has a very father with cancer and another has a husband with COPD.
“They are terrified their family members will have to go to the hospital and then catch COVID-19 there. It has been very hard and on top of the long hours, the PPE can be very painful and exhausting to wear,” Ireland said. “I am not a person who gets a lot of headaches but I have been getting them every shift, I assume, either from the tight straps around my head or wearing these hard to breath in masks all day.”
Ireland said he had been taping paddings over his ears to keep the strings from the masks from digging into his skin.
“But a fellow Tanager, Mitchell Olson, and his husband Mark, came to my rescue and sent me some mask straps he and his husband have been 3D printing,” he said. “This is the good side of being connected in the digital age and through social media. After all these years living in New York City, it is still people from Vermillion coming to my aide, sending me words of encouragement and items to help me through my day.
Ireland noted how it has been impossible to find hand sanitizer in the city for months.
“I was able to acquire some through the winery in Vermillion,” Ireland said. “Courtney Merkwan, another friend of mine from Vermillion, has been a great emotional support and really helpful with my mom who has been having to shelter in place due to her health. It has been really special to me to feel such a connection to my hometown during this.”
At the same time, Ireland notes that he has experienced a sense of community in New York that he has never felt before.
“It is odd to experience that at a time of extreme social distancing but it is true. The people of the city have really rallied around healthcare workers, posting messages outside our hospital and donating food and supplies to us. Every single night at 7 p.m., people all over the city open their windows and cheer, clap and make noise banging on pots and pans in celebration and support of those working on the frontline,” Ireland said. “I am usually at work when this is occurring, but one night each week I leave just as this is starting and it is a surreal and emotional experience hearing this echoing through the streets of the city as I make my way back home to the hotel.”
Conditions are improving at Ireland’s workplace.
“Our ER is a little less busy and we have been able to close a few of the temporary COVID-19 areas we had opened in the building, but we are very much still in the trenches of this event. Although the number of patients coming into the hospital with COVID-19 has started to decrease, they are still coming and once a patient is ill enough to be admitted they can be an inpatient with us for quite some time, especially once it gets to the point that they are put on a ventilator,” he said. “We still have hundreds of patients in our ICU and we are still at a point where most of the patients I am taking care of are COVID-19 positive.
Ireland said it was recently announced that New York City won’t reopen at least until June. As city officials talk about reopening the city, “I worry about there being a spike in cases again if not done thoughtfully,” he said. “Right now, the streets are totally empty. Even at rush hour, the highways are empty as is Time Square.”
Like many places in the country, New York City is struggling with people who don't take the situation seriously enough, he said.
“The parks here have been full of people on the nice days. Many of these people aren't wearing masks. It is hard to be a healthcare worker and risking your life every day to care for these extremely sick patients and then see people doing that,” Ireland said. “They put each other at risk and they put the health care workers that will later have to treat them at risk.”
He worries that once the city officially reopens, people will stop social distancing and wearing masks.
“Even when businesses and workplaces un-pause, we are going to need to take this seriously for quite some time to prevent another spike from occurring,” Ireland said. “I remember even when the pandemic was in full swing and I was still having to commute to work, people were still packing themselves into the subway cars and squishing themselves next to each other to get a seat. People’s mentality about how close they are in public has to change.”
He urges the people of Vermillion and Clay County to please take COVID-19-19 seriously and listen to the advice coming from community leaders.
“This virus is like a spark in a dry forest and once it gets a foothold going in a community it is really hard to stop it from spreading,” he said. “Had we shut down earlier and more completely here in NYC, it is possible things wouldn't have gotten as bad as they have here. We are all in this battle together and just as healthcare workers are fighting for people's lives daily everyone else can do their part, too, by staying home and limiting physical contact with each other.”
Ireland urges people to wear their masks when out and going back to work.
“Please only go out when you absolutely have to. You could be carrying the virus and be unaffected by it but unknowingly give it to someone else and that person could literally die,” he said.