'It's A War Zone': Life As A Brooklyn Nurse On The Front Lines Of COVID-19

A Brooklyn-based ER nurse who tested positive for the coronavirus says health workers like her are not protected.

Ria Rahman, a 27-year-old registered nurse at the Maimonides Medical Center emergency department in Brooklyn, is used to the 12-hour shifts. From 3 p.m. to 3 a.m., the trauma nurse has worked with patients who’ve suffered heart attacks and strokes, gunshot victims and people injured in car crashes.

When the coronavirus outbreak hit New York City at the beginning of March, Rahman said she was seeing 20 to 30 coronavirus patients a day. That same month, Rahman came down with a fever, and on March 20, she found out that she had COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus. She has been self-quarantining at her Bay Ridge home and is set to go back to work next week.

Over 4,700 people have died of COVID-19 in New York state alone, with more than 130,000 confirmed cases of the disease. Nearly 17,000 people are currently hospitalized in the state. On Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said at a news briefing that those who had died were people the hospitals “could not save” and that their deaths were not due to a lack of beds, ventilators or medical staff. 

The governor also announced an increase in the maximum fine for anyone breaking social distancing measures from $500 to $1,000.

“You don’t have the right to burden other people with your irresponsibility,” he said.

Rahman has described the scenes at her local hospital as chaotic. As a front-line health care provider and former coronavirus patient, she told HuffPost she’s frustrated by the “inadequacy of the government” and by individuals who are still not heeding to calls to stay home.

An Overwhelming Physical And Mental Toll

Although Rahman is feeling better, she considers herself among the lucky ones. The lack of proper equipment and protection has put front-line health care providers like her at risk, and it’s only getting worse, she said.

“Fortunately, I was able to survive this and I was able to be OK. Unfortunately, I know many nurses and colleagues that happened to not be doing as well,” she said. “It’s just becoming more of a war zone.”

The mental and physical health of health care workers continues to deteriorate with each passing day. Rahman called the situation catastrophic and said medical providers are forced to ration resources based on a patient’s condition. 

“It’s really taking an emotional toll on nurses and doctors and medical staff on why we have to be forced to make these decisions, and it’s just not fair,” she said.

Ria Rahman is a 27-year-old registered nurse at the Maimonides Medical Center emergency department in Brooklyn.
Ria Rahman is a 27-year-old registered nurse at the Maimonides Medical Center emergency department in Brooklyn.

Unmet Needs

Hospitals in Brooklyn — a borough that’s home to at least 200 different languages and a population that’s nearly 40% foreign — require staffs that are equally diverse. That need has been emphasized during the outbreak, Rahman said.

“We’re seeing immigrants that don’t even speak an ounce of English dying alone in hospitals,” she said. 

As an American of Bangladeshi descent and the only Bangla-speaking medical professional in the emergency department, Rahman said she is frequently asked to translate for patients who would otherwise go unnoticed. 

“Everybody’s worst nightmare is dying alone, and it’s just unfortunate that that’s happening right now,” she said.

Experts and medical professionals like Rahman know that the situation is only going to get worse. She echoes the calls of the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: People need to stay home, and more equipment and safety measures for front-liners like herself are desperately needed.

But she’s hopeful, too, calling New Yorkers among the most resilient people in the country. 

“New York City can survive this,” said Rahman. “Hopefully, we’ll be OK.”

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