Ethan Brown was the newly-hired assistant director for the Harding University in Florence (HUF) program when COVID-19 broke out, which affected Italy before the United States and led to the suspension of the HUF 2020 program. Not long after the program’s suspension, Brown decided to use his nursing degree by moving to New York City and aiding the overflowing hospitals.
“New York City was the very last place on my mind,” Brown said. “But everything kept lining up perfectly for me to go there. I wanted to stay in a safe place close to home, but God had different plans for me.”
During the time between March and May of 2020, New York City was the center for the pandemic in the United States. Brown signed up for an intensive care unit nurse float position, where he was randomly assigned to hospitals that desperately needed to be staffed. He began work at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital with only one day of orientation before his shifts began, Brown said. Before COVID-19, orientation lasted several weeks so nurses could adjust to the fast-paced workflow, but the pandemic pushed every hospital’s staff to their limit.
“Each day, I would wake up around 6 a.m., walk to work and pray all the way to the hospital, asking God to just help me navigate through the day and keep my patients safe,” Brown said. “I remember having a lot of anxiety walking to work each day, not knowing what type of assignment I was going to have or even knowing where I was going to be in the hospital.”
Normally, ICU nurses would be assigned to assist one patient each day, but at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, nurses were assigned multiple COVID-positive patients. Brown managed IV blood pressure, sedation and pain medications for each patient who was medically paralyzed while on the ventilator. If a patient became unstable, he would administer proper procedure as a doctor would stand outside of the room telling him what he needed to do. Patients would often need to be “proned,” meaning they would be flipped onto their stomach to improve oxygenation. This task would take up to four nurses, and the patient would be temporarily disconnected from machinery and medication, then quickly reconnected once stable.
“At 10:30 a.m., the snack cart came around, and this was truly the best part of my day,” Brown said. “I never thought I would be so excited to see a granola bar in my life. I was too anxious in the mornings before work to eat breakfast, so this was a treat.”
After his break, Brown would check on all of his patients and draw blood for new lab examinations. He would balance taking doctors’ orders and finding time for families to FaceTime their sick loved ones, all while hoping his N95 mask kept a solid seal to protect him from the virus. After 7 p.m., Brown would give his report to the next nurse and tell them about everything that had happened that day. He would walk home to his apartment on the Upper East Side by Central Park, call his parents and try not to think about his work day for the rest of the night.
“After each shift, I always felt like I forgot something or didn’t do enough for the patient,” Brown said. “[I felt like] maybe I made a mistake that might have literally caused someone to die. I would get to my apartment after 8 p.m., clean up and hope that I disinfected everything to keep myself safe, and I would usually find something funny to watch on TV before I went to bed to distract my busy mind.”
In August 2020, Brown became a travel nurse at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona when the state was at its peak number of COVID-19 cases. He jumped right into the same type of nursing position as in New York City, with more time to balance his schedule. He is more familiar with the hospital system due to his time with the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
Brown witnessed the beginning of the pandemic in Italy and remembers warning his parents about what was going to happen in America. He saw the strain of the virus in New York hospitals and predicted the same thing to happen in Arizona before the holiday season. The Arizona Mayo Clinic was stretched thin through New Year’s Eve due to the public letting their guard down surrounding the coronavirus.
Senior nursing major Audrey Beth Tillman has witnessed several cases of COVID-19 throughout the last year. Tillman is currently doing her clinical rotations at Unity Health Hospital in Searcy and Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, Arkansas. Tillman said she believes it takes courage, determination and selflessness to be a floating registered nurse in places like New York City during the pandemic.
“The nurses who floated to New York left their families and homes to work in the biggest hotspot of infection in the middle of a pandemic,” Tillman said. “To me, this demonstrates that the nurses who went to NYC cared more about taking care of patients who needed them and assisting other nurses who were running out of resources than themselves.”
Junior Seth Sims studied abroad in Florence last spring with Brown. During his time in Florence, Sims said he saw Brown as an approachable authority figure he felt comfortable confiding in.
“Ethan was really impressive to me because he made an intentional mission to get to know the ins and outs of everybody that was on the trip,” Sims said. “Regardless of [whether] he clicked with them or not, he dove into different friend groups and really made a point of making himself available.”
Working every day throughout the pandemic makes the hardship of being an ICU nurse worth it, Brown said. He is able to meet the needs of others with talents not many people possess. Fear of the unknown has always been a struggle for Brown, but he advocates for others to set aside their fears and seek discomfort.
“I have learned so much about myself in the last year,” Brown said. “As a person, I learned that I can do things that seem impossible if I change my mindset and rely on God to shift my perspective and lead me where he needs me. As a nurse, I gained a lot of confidence in myself to be able to deal with stressful situations, to multitask and to advocate for my patients with the knowledge I have. As a Christian, I learned more about the perfect timing of God, the love of Christ, and I really felt the community of Christ support me during my journey.”