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Traveling Crisis Nurse Fears Post-Holiday COVID-19 Surge

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Several months into the coronavirus pandemic, after the virus has spread throughout the country, not to mention the world, it can be hard to wrap our heads around the scale of it. But we're going to keep trying, and today, that's by hearing about the experiences of one traveling ICU nurse who's been seeing this crisis up close.

But first, numbers. Yesterday, the U.S. reported more than 155,000 new confirmed coronavirus cases and nearly 1,200 deaths. And public health experts say these numbers will likely go up after millions of people traveled for holiday gatherings despite pleas by public health experts and despite the fact that doctors have more effective treatments than they did at the start of the crisis.

And this comes at a time when hospitals are already overwhelmed. There are now more people hospitalized for COVID-19 than at any other time during the pandemic. Hospitals are warning that they are reaching full capacity and that a post-holiday surge might make it impossible to provide care for everybody who needs it. So we wanted to hear from someone who's seen all this up close. We've called Jasmyne Aseff. She is a traveling ICU nurse currently on assignment in St. Louis, Mo.

Jasmyne Aseff, welcome. Thank you so much for all that you're doing. And thank you for being here.

JASMYNE ASEFF: Thank you.

MARTIN: You know, we called you because you've been working on the front lines of this for a while. I mean, you've been in Texas, New York, Georgia. You were in New York during the first surge they were having back in the spring. You know, it's hard to believe that it's been months now. But I just wondered, is there one thing that you've witnessed that kind of brings home for people how serious things have gotten, especially from this past couple of days or weeks?

ASEFF: I would say that the numbers are definitely surging again. The patients are surging. I know for the public that it's just numbers that sometimes, that doesn't mean a whole lot. But within the walls of the hospital, you know, these are people. People are very sick. People are dying. You know, patients are dying. That is very real.

But also, you know, what recovery looks like for some - if you're healthy before, and you're strong before, sometimes when you recover, you know, that means, you know, recovering to fairly normal lifestyle, what you were before. But for many, that's not what that means. You know, it means a very different version of yourself post-COVID-19, which is very, you know, hard on you, hard on your family, on your support system, on your loved ones. And sometimes there isn't recovery afterwards, and that sticks with you.

MARTIN: And what about at the hospital? I mean, are you able to treat everybody who needs assistance? Or are some things going by the wayside because there is - is there space, for example? Like, if you were waiting for - like, I don't know - like, a hip replacement or something like that, could you still be seen? If you had - if you needed other kinds of treatment, can you still be seen?

ASEFF: Here, they are. When I was in New York, that was a different story. It seemed to be OK in Texas as well. I was in South Georgia. South Georgia got a little hairy. You know, South Georgia was a little hairy. We had to hustle. We were at capacity most of the time. Here, our ICU is full. So, you know, we have to do a lot of, like, shifting of patients. Sometimes you'll have to move patients out to make room or move them to the different hospitals to make room for the sicker patients. So there does seem to be room here, but numbers are surging.

I do anticipate that they will continue to surge throughout the holiday, and things may get hairy. But as of right now, we seem to be very close to capacity every single shift I've worked. So that could change. You know, this surge is going on right now, and we're always very close to capacity, if not full, in the ICUs. Every hospital I've left, I have wondered what exactly their plan is when our contracts end.

MARTIN: You - I just need to say, you have extensive experience. I mean, you are very experienced because you are a crisis nurse. I mean, you've previously worked as a traveling nurse. You spent time in ICUs that saw SARS, MERS, I mean, Ebola, so you have a deep background in infectious disease and treatments. I do want to establish that you're very experienced. But I do wonder if you've seen things because of the scope of this that you perhaps had not seen before and what that's like for you.

ASEFF: Certainly. Certainly. Well, I try to find the silver lining that - so I'm fascinated by what I'm learning. But I also really try to implore on our patients, on our patient's families, on my co-workers and colleagues, like, how important it is for this to not be in vain. And, like, please, please let us not be working 50, 60 hours a week, and then they, you know, go out to dinners, go out to bars, go to the gym.

You know, live your life. You know, don't go crazy. Get some takeout, download workouts, you know, at home. Or don't isolate to a point where you're getting depressed and having issues in that way, and cope how you need to cope. But understand, we are in this together, and that it is a small sacrifice to pay for this holiday season to be different - you know what I mean? For - just sacrifice this one for humanity, and next year can be better.

MARTIN: Well, before I let you go, are there any patients that you think will stick with you - people you've treated, people you've cared for throughout this that you think may stick with you after this is over?

ASEFF: Absolutely. I would say my first patient in New York City - she made such an amazing recovery. And I was so amazed and so happy that she made the turnaround she did. And I was able to watch her be discharged. And she got her trach removed and was speaking and crying tears of joy when she heard her own voice for the first time in a long time.

And when I tell you this woman pops into my head every couple of days - I mean, I fell in love with this lady. I - she inspired me so much. And I even - we all said to her, like, this - we needed this. We needed this story.

MARTIN: That was Jasmyne Aseff. She is a traveling ICU nurse with AYA Health Care, and she's currently serving in St. Louis, Mo.

Jasmyne Aseff, I thank you so very much for everything you do. Thank you so much for talking to us.

ASEFF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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