Former Powell nurse helping fight COVID-19 at NYC field hospital

Posted 4/14/20

As she worked as a nurse in Powell and Cheyenne in recent years, Sonja Nisley hoped her skills could one day be used to help with an international disaster. But never did she think she would be …

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Former Powell nurse helping fight COVID-19 at NYC field hospital


As she worked as a nurse in Powell and Cheyenne in recent years, Sonja Nisley hoped her skills could one day be used to help with an international disaster. But never did she think she would be called to respond to a health crisis in America.

Late last month, however, Nisley was among dozens of medical professionals dispatched to New York City to help run a 68-bed field hospital in Central Park for patients infected with COVID-19.

“We’re at pretty much full capacity right now,” Nisley said Saturday, shortly before leaving her hotel for another 12-hour shift at Samaritan’s Purse’s field hospital.

Few places in the world have been hit harder by the new coronavirus than New York state, where more than 189,000 people had tested positive and at least 9,345 people had been killed by the disease as of Monday.

Overwhelmed hospitals have struggled to keep up with the flood of patients, which is why Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian nonprofit, was asked to lend a hand.

“We’ve had a lot of sadness. There’s been death,” Nisley said. “And then there’s a lot of cheering when ... one of our patients gets to go out that front gate. … People are improving and they are getting better and are able to go back to their lives.”

The work has not been easy — Nisley believes that only God’s grace and the prayers of people across the country have kept her and the rest of the team going — but it’s exactly what she wants to be doing.

“I think God created us to serve, and there’s great joy when we’re doing that,” Nisley said.


A long journey

Nisley began her nursing career at Powell Valley Healthcare, spending a couple years in the medical-surgical unit at the hospital and then eight years at the clinic.

But her ultimate goal as a nurse was to join the Samaritan’s Purse Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) — a group of professionals who, according to the organization, “stand ready to respond at a moment’s notice whenever and wherever disaster strikes” to provide water, food, shelter and medical care and to share their faith.

When Nisley and her husband, Bruce, moved to Cheyenne in the latter part of 2017, she joined the Cheyenne Regional Medical Center emergency room team, specifically seeking to learn new skills she could use with Samaritan’s Purse.

Nisley “learned a ton” during her 2 1/2 years in the ER, and last month, she gave her notice.

Nisley thought her next stop would be a cross-country cycling trip with Bruce that would take the couple from Montana to Maine and then Florida by next winter.

But, as it has for so many people around the globe, the new coronavirus altered those plans.

Samaritan’s Purse put out a call for help to its DART members. Workers were needed to man a newly erected field hospital in Cremona, Italy — one of the regions hit the hardest by COVID-19. Nisley signed on and prepared to leave for Europe.

However, the plans suddenly changed as it became clear that the epicenter of the pandemic had shifted; New York City was in crisis.

On Sunday, March 29, Nisley got a call: Instead of leaving for Italy on April 10, could she fly out to NYC the following day? She — along with several others — agreed.

It was an eerie trip through Denver International Airport, with the usually bustling hub almost deserted. Outside of staff, “there wasn’t a soul in the whole United area,” she said.

On her flight to New York City, Nisley was one of only two travelers aboard the 120-passenger Airbus A319, she said, tended to by a crew of five. The other passenger was a fellow volunteer with Samaritan’s Purse, heading to work in the field hospital’s lab.

While en route, one of the flight attendants had the two medical workers jot down their names on a napkin. “She just said, ‘I’m going to pray for you every day,’” Nisley said.


‘Amazing and so fast’

On March 30, the same day that Nisley arrived in New York City, President Donald Trump expressed disbelief at the images he was seeing from the metropolis — specifically, of bodies being loaded into trailers at a hospital not far from where he used to live.

“I’ve seen things that I’ve never seen before. I mean, I’ve seen them, but I’ve seen them on television in faraway lands,” Trump reflected at a press conference. “I’ve never seen them in our country.”

Samaritan’s Purse was among those to answer New York’s call for help. The evangelical organization has a half-century of experience assisting in the aftermath of hurricanes, famines, wars and other crises, but this is the first time Samaritan’s Purse has deployed medical aid within the U.S.

Dave Philips, the deputy director for Samaritan’s Purse international projects, said in a podcast from the organization that, under normal circumstances, it might have taken years to get the government permissions needed to set up a temporary hospital in Central Park.

“And so it’s just amazing that ... literally in a few hours, the people came together who needed to,” Philips said, adding, “All these people just came together, and they said, ’You know what, you’re here to help and we’re gonna make this work.’”

Crews set up the 14-tent field hospital — which was previously deployed in war-torn Mosul, Iraq in 2017 — in Central Park over the course of a couple days.

“Samaritan’s Purse has been — like so many others — just been amazing and so fast,” President Trump said April 1.

Samaritan’s Purse set up equipment and beds, running water, electricity and heat to each of the tents and “roads” between them to accommodate wheelchairs and carts.

The field hospital slowly started seeing patients, initially just a handful, as the 68-bed operation got up and running.


All walks of life

The Samaritan’s Purse hospital includes 10 ICU beds with ventilators, for patients who are unable to breathe on their own due to the new coronavirus; those beds were all full on Saturday, Nisley said.

For her part, she helps oversee the men’s ward, where patients’ conditions aren’t as dire. But the situation can still be grim.

Nisley saw a few patients with COVID-19 symptoms before her time at the Cheyenne Regional Medical Center came to a close, “but nothing like what we’re seeing here.”

“People are really sick,” she said. “This hits them with a fever and they just become so weak they can barely get up.”

The patients hit with the respiratory disease come from all walks of life.

“There’s working class people right in there with financial people,” Nisley said, hailing from a wide variety of cultures and languages.

They sometimes communicate in broken English, an effort made more difficult by the sound-muffling masks and face shields that go along with the gowns, double-gloves and other personal protective equipment worn by medical workers.

The Samaritan’s Purse facility lacks the amenities and privacy that modern hospitals generally afford, but Nisley said patients have simply been thankful to be receiving care. One young mechanic told the staff that he waited in an emergency room for seven hours, then was placed in a small, one-patient room with two other men before being transferred to the field hospital.

Most of the patients have been over the age of 50, Nisley said, but not all of them are older; one recent charge was a man in his 30s, who works for the New York Police Department.

“They all just say, ‘I didn’t think it could happen to me. And when I started having symptoms, I still denied that it could be real,’” Nisley said. “And yet they become where they just can’t even get up, they become so short of breath.”


‘Sadness in each cot’

Two nurses work days and two nurses work nights in the men’s ward, from 7 to 7.

“Back in the real world,” Nisley said she used to think she couldn’t do more than three 12-hour shifts in a row. Saturday was her 13th day in New York City, which she credits to the prayers going up around the country for the operation.

“My phone is full of people from Powell just saying that they are praying for the people that I’m working with and for my patients and also just courage and strength to keep going,” Nisley said, saying she is so appreciative of the support.

As for her day-to-day work, it’s “a lot of just caring for the basic needs of people and helping them to the bathroom and helping them fluff pillows and try to get comfortable on cots and stay warm,” she said. “It brings a lot of joy when you can see that you’re easing their suffering in just the small things.”

On Saturday, Nisley’s ward consisted of 13 men on cots who were receiving oxygen.

One man — who already lost his brother to the virus — was among several worried patients.

“They worry about their jobs, and their animals at home and lots of concerns and sadness in each cot as we get to know their story,” Nisley said.

With Samaritan’s Purse being an openly Christian organization, she and other staffers offer to pray with the patients.

“Fear is rampant with this disease and so [there’s] a lot of trying to reach towards that and bring the comfort of that and bring the comfort of Christ,” she said, “because truly in ourselves, we have nothing to offer, but he does.”

Nisley said patients have appreciated the prayers — though not everyone in New York has welcomed the organization’s Christianity.


New York reacts

Evangelist Franklin Graham, son of the late Rev. Billy Graham, is the president and CEO of Samaritan’s Purse. He’s led the Christian relief organization for more than four decades, helping bring aid to people in scores of countries. However, Graham has drawn criticism from supporters of gay rights for his stance that homosexuality is a sin.

The Samaritan’s Purse statement of faith says that — in addition to stating that “human life is sacred” and “we must have concern for the physical and spiritual needs of our fellowmen” and other points — marriage “is exclusively the union of one genetic male and one genetic female.”

After plans for the field hospital were unveiled last month, the speaker of the New York City Council, Corey Johnson, called it “extremely troubling that [Graham] and his organization are involved in our relief efforts in any way” and that he would be “monitoring this situation closely and making sure that our city’s values [of diversity] are being represented at all times.”

Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a press conference that he was “very concerned to make sure this is done right. But if it is done right, of course we need all the help we can get.”

Samaritan’s Purse leaders said the fears of potential discrimination were misplaced.

“Everybody’s welcome,” Graham said in an appearance on The Ben Shapiro Show that aired Sunday. “And if a gay or transgender person would show up at the hopsital, we would show them the same love and compassion and give them the same world-class healthcare we’d give to anybody else that comes.”

He said that, in 50 years of operations, there’s never been an accusation that the organization refused someone help due to their beliefs, because “we just don’t do that.”

Graham added in an appearance on Fox & Friends Weekend that New Yorkers have come out to encourage the organization and its efforts, including bringing food.

“... It’s just incredible,” he said.

That’s the kind of response Nisley said she has experienced.

It’s about a mile from her hotel to the field hospital and as she and her fellow nurses with Samaritan’s Purse have walked to work in their scrubs, they’ve been cheered along. Some people — forced to stay indoors while the pandemic spreads through the city — have stuck their hands out of their windows to clap as the nurses pass by. And at 7 p.m. every night, residents holler and bang pots and pans to express their gratitude for the medical workers’ efforts.

“The people of New York have been just amazing,” Nisley said.

As for Nisley, serving on the emergency response team “was my ultimate goal, and so this seems like a real fulfillment of kind of a long journey.”

The work in NYC could be just the first of many missions for Nisley, as she hopes to be able to serve again when another need arises. However, she is quick to downplay her role.

“Truly it is the nurses that have been working in the hospitals here in New York for months that are the heroes,” she emphasized. “They work long hours without the right equipment trying to take care of very sick people.”

On Monday, one of those NYC nurses was among Nisley’s patients. Samaritan’s Purse had treated 130 people at the field hospital as of Monday — and there are signs New York is turning a corner, with fewer coronavirus hospitalizations in the state.