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.
Most nurses will say their profession was a calling. Jennifer Emmons is no exception.
“I had always wanted to be a nurse from the time I was 3 years old and my grandpa Scott let me help him with his insulin shots,” she said. “He would say, ‘You’re going to be a nurse just like your aunt Barbie, right?’”
Jennifer enrolled at FLCC when her four sons were school-aged. “It was close to home and had one of the most difficult and highly recommended programs,” she said.
Emmons soaked up the lessons of faculty and staff like Emily Kuryla, Jean D’Abbracci, Lisa McAnn, Susan McCarthy, Barbara Selvek, Mary Coriale, and Kylene Abraham.
After graduating, she accepted a post as a charge nurse in a rehab unit at Thompson Hospital’s continuing care center. In the six years that followed, she also held jobs as a community health nurse, an RN case manager and a clinical specialist for a variety of health care providers, sometimes at the same time.
The Hospeace position offered an opportunity to work in her hometown and provide “person-centered” care. Board President Bob Brancato said her compassion combined with skill and administrative background have made her an excellent fit.
He wasn’t surprised when Jennifer said she wanted to help in a COVID-19 hotspot. “We were concerned in regards to her health and what she was going to be facing,” he said. “She prepared herself well and we were very much respectful of what she was going to be doing and proud we had somebody as our executive director who was willing to help in such a critical time.”
Jennifer accepted a post as an assistant director of nursing in the hospital’s behavioral and psychiatric outpatient clinic. “At the time I was thinking, OK, of course there’s going to be some exposure, but it wasn’t like I was going to be standing in the COVID unit,” she said. “I thought, I can go and I can help and do it from an administrative position and still keep myself a little bit safer.”
She arrived at the hospital on April 20. “It was chaos and all hands on deck were needed,” she said. “We were dropped into the ‘Twilight Zone.’”
Shortly after her arrival, an administrator took Jennifer from what she thought would be a desk job into the war zone. All around, she saw patients on ventilators.
Jennifer hadn’t been offered personal protective equipment, or PPE. She thought of another former FLCC nursing professor, Barbara Selvek.
“She always told us, ‘You constantly have to be assessing your situation and your surroundings,’” Jennifer said. “I realized I was brought to a COVID unit, so I backed up and said, ‘I’m sorry but I am going to at least need a mask to enter.’”
The occupants of this room were among the many casualties during Jennifer Emmons’ stay at Bergen New Bridge Medical Center.
When she could, Jennifer Emmons ’11 held the hands of patients who could not have visitors during the peak of the pandemic. Sometimes, she sent photos like this to their loved ones.
The threat of infection was constant.
One of Jennifer’s colleagues, a 23-year-old nurse assistant, was among the casualties. It was a crushing blow and a contradiction to what the healthcare workers were hearing from some outside of the hospital walls – the belief that the disease was only a threat to the elderly and immune-compromised.
“COVID doesn’t discriminate,” she said.
Beacons of hope
In addition to testing and treating patients, Jennifer was often tasked with calling their next-of-kin with updates. Sometimes a call to confirm a positive test came just hours before another phone call — to say the patient had died.
Sometimes Jennifer found “deafening silence” on the other end of the line. Sometimes she heard sobbing. A few times, she bore the brunt of their grief – a mother once yelled at her, “You killed my son” but called back later with an apology and a thank you for doing what she could.
Jennifer relied on what she’d learned from FLCC professor Jean D’Abbracci. “She told us, ‘Never make false promises and never say I understand because you absolutely cannotunderstand what they are going through,’” Jennifer said.
It was the same for the patients. Jennifer could not tell them things like “you’re going to be OK” because most often that wasn’t the case, especially for those who were put on ventilators. Whenever she could, she held their hands and tried to show compassion, not easy from under a mask.
COVID-19 survivors were always cause for celebration. Nursing staff brought balloons and applause when they were released home or back to the long-term care facility.
One of them asked staff to play Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” Jennifer said, adding, “I think we cried more when we saw those times.”
In addition to the survivors, Jennifer found comfort in her connection with fellow nursing staff who stayed at the same hotel. Many late nights they gathered on the patio to recount their experiences or share in a quiet understanding.
Family and friends back home also provided support with texts, calls, Facetime chats and a steady supply of care packages. “Local businesses were sending sanitizer and masks,” she said, adding that one package included 300 face shields. “That was a welcomed box.”
Jennifer’s original contract was for six weeks but she decided to double it. COVID-19 numbers declined in her final weeks, resulting in fewer hospitalizations.
“I was very thankful to have been there for the full 12 weeks because I was able to see the whole picture and have a sense of pride and feeling that we did make a difference, we did matter,” she said. “If I had left earlier, I don’t think I would have had that feeling.”
The transition home
Jennifer left for home on Monday, June 29. Tears came as she watched the New York City skyline fade into the background.
She felt she was leaving a part of herself behind, though she knew her shift had ended. She needed to get back home to her sons and baby granddaughter.
“I remember coming up from Cohocton and seeing the sign that says ‘Welcome to Naples.’ I have seen that sign a thousand times and it had such a different meaning to me.”
She found her family waiting in her driveway. “I put my mask on and grabbed ahold of my kids and cried,” she said. “That’s when it all sank in.”
The transition from chaos hasn’t been easy.
“By the time I got home I was angry. I was exhausted. I was emotional. It was easy for me to snap at somebody,” she said.
Keeping connected with the healthcare workers she shared the front lines with has helped. Whenever possible, Jennifer takes part in an initiative started in New Jersey to support healthcare workers who endured the disease. Called “Check you, check two,” it asks participants to take a moment each day to consider their own mental health and then check up on two others.
Jennifer also keeps a sense of connection tied around her ankle: A thin cord with a tiny stethoscope charm, gifted to her by a fellow travel nurse from Memphis.
What has helped most, though, is getting back to work. In early September, Jennifer and Hospeace board members were making plans to reopen. The home closed over the summer, a few weeks after Jennifer’s departure.
The challenge has been recruiting volunteers and coming up with creative ways to raise funds without in-person events.
Jennifer hoped to see the home reopen in the early fall. “I can’t wait to get back to doing what I love,” she said.
If given the choice, would she do it all over again?
“Absolutely,” she said. “In nursing school, you are taught that you go where you’re needed. We’re all in this together.”
How you can support FLCC nurses: Training exceptional nurses requires providing up-to-date lab equipment. You can support the FLCC nursing program by giving to the Plumb Nursing Equipment Fund. Visit give.flcc.edu, and click on “Give to FLCC.” Use the drop-down menu to choose where your donation will go.