‘All you can do is just hold their hand’: 5 health care workers who helped in NYC during pandemic honored – St George News

CEDAR CITY — Five Southern Utah health care workers who traveled to New York one year ago to assist at hospitals and other facilities during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic’s initial U.S. outbreak were honored Tuesday for their efforts. 

L-R: Rotary Club president Paul Monroe, Cedar City Hospital nurse administrator Cyndi Wallace, John Killpack, Jarid Gray, Justin Robbins, Celeste Sorensen and Rotary board member Tessa Douglas following awards presentation to health care workers during Rotary Club luncheon. Also receiving the same recognition was Weston Ewing, who was not present at the event, Cedar City, Utah, May 4, 2021 | Photo courtesy of Becki Bronson, St. George News / Cedar City News

During the Cedar City Rotary Club’s regular luncheon meeting held at the Courtyard Marriott, the organization’s prestigious Service Above Self awards and Paul Harris Fellow recognitions were presented to physician Dr. Jarid Gray, registered nurses Celeste Sorensen and Justin Robbins and certified registered nurse anesthetists John Killpack and Weston Ewing. 

In his comments to the crowd, Gray said he recently received a Facebook reminder telling him that April 30 had been exactly one year since he returned to Cedar City after spending three weeks working in a Manhattan hospital.

“I’ve joked with my wife that the last year has been the longest decade of my life,” he said.

“As I’ve reflected on my experience in New York, I think the thing that stood out to me the most was just how understaffed they were for what was happening.” Gray said.

Instead of the typical one nurse for every one to two patients, Gray said the ratios were much higher in New York.

Dr. Jarid Gray speaks about his experience helping out at a New York hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2020, Cedar City, Utah, May 4, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

“Critical patients should have one nurse per patient on their shifts; the nurses there were taking care of four or five patients in the ICU,” he said, adding, “The patients in the medical floor usually have five or six patients per nurse, and they were taking 12 to 15.”

Gray said New York served as a lesson for the rest of the country in many ways. 

“The biggest difference in outcomes between what we saw in New York and what we’ve seen in the rest of the country is that we have not seen those nursing ratios ever again,” he said. “We’ve never reached a point where we had that much stress on our population, that our emergency nursing pool couldn’t manage the patients in what we consider the standard of care.

Robbins said he worked alongside nurses in New York who had been working many days in a row without a day off.

L-R: Health care workers Celeste Sorensen, Justin Robbins, Jarid Gray and John Killpack receive awards during Cedar City Rotary Club luncheon, Cedar City, Utah, May 4, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

“Where we were only there for 17 days. I knew I could go home and see my family and come back to Cedar City,” he said. “The nurses there, they were doing the best they could with what they were given.”

Robbins called the nurses “amazing.”

“They definitely took the brunt like nothing that we’ve felt here, and thankfully, we don’t feel it here.”

Killpack, who works as a CNRA in the ICU, noted that not even a decade’s worth of military training could adequately prepare him for what he experienced in New York.

“I spent 10 years in the military practicing and anticipating what it would be like to have a mass casualty situation where you have so many patients with so little resources,” he said. “And my time, my 3 1/2 weeks in New York, that completely overwhelmed anything I would have anticipated in the military. I’m just really glad that Utah never had to go through that and experience that.”

Killpack also encouraged those in the audience to get themselves vaccinated if they have not already done so.

Sorensen, a dialysis nurse, called her experience in New York “a highlight of my life.”

“I’ve been a nurse for 27 years, and I’ve done many different things. But this really touched my heart,” she said. “I cried every day, just because of those sick patients. Every one of them were scared, and there was nothing that I could do. We couldn’t send them to the hospital because that’s why they were there (in a dialysis center).”

Cedar City Rotary Club president Paul Monroe presents awards to health care workers, Cedar City, Utah, May 4, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

Sorensen said she considered herself fortunate, in that she didn’t have to witness any of her patients die.

“But they were so sick. All you can do is just hold their hand, cry with them, (and) let them know you’re there to help them. … They thanked me every day that I was there, for coming,” she said.

Ewing, who wasn’t present at the luncheon to receive his awards in person, later told Cedar City News by phone that he also worked alongside other health care workers who were overwhelmed and understaffed.

“They were short-staffed as it was,” he said. “A lot of them had been working days and days and days without really any end in sight.”

Ewing said he wasn’t as fortunate as Sorensen.

“The worst thing for me, though, was seeing people die without their loved ones around them,” Ewing said. “You know, that was tough. That was really hard to see.”

Rotary Club president Paul Monroe thanked the health care workers for taking time away from their families and traveling back to New York to help out at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We’re all safer because of the work of health care providers,” Monroe said. “With deep gratitude, it’s our turn to support the health care workers, many of whom have risked their own health caring for us.”

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