Before leaving for a 12-week post to help at a New Jersey hospital hit hard by COVID-19, nurse Jennifer Emmons ’11 finalized her own funeral arrangements.
“I had to have a talk with my children to let them know what was in place, where the life insurance is,” she said. “My kids weren’t going to have to wonder about anything. Working in death and dying, I know how important that is.”
Jennifer has been the executive director of the Naples end-of-life comfort home, Hospeace House, since 2017. When the pandemic took hold, the Finger Lakes Community College nursing alumna felt summoned to the storm.
She watched the early reports from the New York City epicenter, where hospitals approached capacity and supplies and staff were sorely needed.
“Being a hospice nurse I think what bothered me the most was that we kept hearing that people were dying alone,” said Jennifer. “I knew that I had skills that were needed.”
With the support of the Hospeace board of directors, Jennifer took an unpaid leave of absence to serve at the Bergen New Bridge Medical Center in Paramus, New Jersey, about 20 miles from Manhattan.
Her assignment was at times administrative but always in the trenches. Many hospital staff had fallen ill in the early weeks, and the crush of patients was so great, a 100-bed medical tent went up in a parking lot.
“You had to remain calm when you were the furthest thing from calm,” she said. “There wasn’t enough of anything — staff, equipment, beds. Some of those basic human needs were being overlooked because we just didn’t have enough hands on deck.”
Every long, chaotic shift was followed by a methodical routine of carefully removing her armor — gloves, gown, shield, and mask — before returning to the hotel she called home during her stay.
On the worst nights, when doubt and hopelessness crept in, Jennifer remembered something one of her FLCC instructors told her in a class years ago: “Never forget why you became a nurse.”
Those words, from the now retired Emily Kuryla, became a mantra.