Rockford nurse who fought COVID-19 in NYC: ‘Very humbling, very real’

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Not knowing when she would return, Nichole Imhoff left her Rockford home to help in the fight against COVID-19 in the U.S. state hardest hit by the virus.

She left April 4 and didn’t get back until May 23.

The experience, Imhoff says, will stay with her forever. 

Imhoff traveled to the Bronx in New York City to work at Lincoln Hospital. She treated COVID-19 patients in the hospital’s intensive care unit.

“I was scared every single day,” Imhoff told News 8 Tuesday. “When I first got there, I was literally scared to breathe the air around me.”

Each day, Imhoff and other traveling health care workers were bused to the hospital at 6:15 a.m. to work 12-hour shifts. The group was arranged through Crucial Staffing, an agency that works with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to bring health care workers to disaster-stricken communities.

Leaving two children and a husband behind, Imhoff said she felt called to help. It was her first time taking on a travel assignment.

When she arrived at the hospital, Imhoff said ICU nurses were caring for six patients each. Ideally, ICU nurses have one critically ill patient a piece and never more than two.

“It was literally us sweating every single day, running from patient to patient with no breaks,” Imhoff said. “No hospital really prepared themselves or was prepared for all these patients coming in.”

Now York is the state with the highest number of coronavirus cases and deaths. It has reported 368,669 confirmed cases and 29,241 confirmed or suspected coronavirus deaths, according to a Tuesday report from The New York Times.

The City, an independent local news outlet, reported that patients from the Bronx suffering from COVID-19 were twice as likely to die due to the number of people with significant underlying conditions like asthma and diabetes.

“We had a lot of patients that didn’t start on a ventilator and were scared and were suffering — couldn’t breathe,” Imhoff said. “They were fine one minute. And several hours later in your shift, now they’re going downhill and things have changed.

“We were all coming together for one purpose and that was to save these patients’ lives,” she continued.

All too often, their efforts were in vain. Imhoff said she held the hands of dying patients who otherwise would have been alone. 

Visitors weren’t allowed due to the highly contagious nature of the virus. 

“Grown men, women are crying because they just did everything they possibly could for this patient and there’s nothing they can do,” Imhoff said. 

She then witnessed doctors making the dreaded call to the families.

“You can hear them screaming over the phone and crying and then you see these doctors that are crying as they’re talking to them,” Imhoff said. “It’s very humbling and it’s very real.”

While caring for patients in New York, Imhoff saw the news coming out back home in Michigan about protests at the state Capitol building, where hundreds gathered to denounce the governor’s efforts to control the virus.

“I felt embarrassed because here I am holding somebody in my arms as they’re dying and then I turn around and I see protests in Michigan,” Imhoff said. “It really does sadden me that other people in New York, knowing where I’m coming from, maybe saw the news and are thinking ‘Wow,’ you know. ‘Here we are I just lost my uncle, my grandma, my sister and then you have states over here that are protesting.’ They look at it as being selfish.”

Imhoff returned home Saturday but hasn’t been able to properly embrace her family. She is quarantining herself in the basement of her home until she can make sure she isn’t carrying the virus. 

Her husband prepares meals and leaves them at the top of the steps. She hasn’t yet hugged her children after being away from them for nearly 50 days.

Imhoff said the success stories in New York made the trip fulfilling, relaying one instance in which a woman who once teetered on the line between life and death was able to speak to her family. Imhoff said she helped the woman make a video call and watched as she reconnected with her loved ones for the first time in weeks.

“I’ll never forget it,” Imhoff said. “It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever experienced.”

“I had witnessed so much death and sadness and literally watching people suffer and fighting for their lives,” she continued. “It made my trip worth it seeing this success.”

Imhoff, who works at a retirement home in the Grand Rapids area, said she walked away from the experience in New York forever changed both personally and professionally.

“I will never complain about anything at work ever again,” she said with a laugh. “I’ll never — I swear I’ll never complain about anything.”

She walked away with a greater appreciation for a universal truth about life:

“It can be gone in two seconds.”