Photo courtesy of Walden University
Many stories about frontline workers have come out since COVID-19 began. But Anna Slayton’s story as a relief nurse is quite different. Slayton, BSN, RN-BC, works as a registered nurse with two hospital systems in the DFW Metroplex Baylor Scott and White Emergency Hospital as well as Methodist Health System. She’s also building her own business, Kardia Wellness, through which she will provide holistic-based virtual health coaching, as well as some in-person consults, to people who either don’t have access to or need a more optimal way to see a health care provider. She’s also working on earning her Master of Science in Nursing from Walden University.
While all that is quite a lot, Slayton did more. She left her family in Texas to work in NYC, where COVID-19 was worse. She answered questions about her story. The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
What made you want to leave and work in NYC as a COVID-19 relief nurse? How did your family take it? Did you have to take a leave of absence from your current job? Were they supportive?
My husband and I were coming home from vacation with our kids over Spring Break in March 2020. As we were driving home from Gulf Shores, social media began to flood with news of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. We listened to the news station on the radio while driving home—about cities starting to shut down and the case numbers increasing.
I started to become so nervous about returning to work the next week. I work at a micro-hospital where staffing is minimal and patient ratios are smaller. I knew if the facility began to see COVID cases, it would all be on me. We did end up having two positive cases that gave me experience in caring for COVID patients and the ability to see the effect it was having on them. Thankfully, that helped me start to understand the treatment plan and protocols that were unfolding. Since everything was so unknown at the time, my family and I decided it was best to keep some distance while I had to work in case I were to bring COVID home.
While watching the news at work, I saw the USNS Comfort pull into the New York City harbor and knew that as a wife, a mom, and a nurse, this was my opportunity. Several of my colleagues had taken the call, so I decided to as well. I have a skillset that not everyone does that could be utilized to help save lives, so I ultimately knew it was my duty. As far as logistics, everyone was supportive and my kids have a great dad and stepdad, so I knew they were in good hands during my absence. My husband and I have six children between us, the youngest three who live with us are 16, 11, and 8.
I did have to leave my job to take the assignment in New York, but they graciously took me back when I came home. As far as being a nursing student, I had just finished the clinical requirements for the course I was taking at Walden University before leaving and was able to work on the didactic portion of my class after work as usual. I just continued to press on in my MSN degree program.
Explain the particulars to us.
I left on April 15, when everything was still so overwhelming at the hospitals in New York. Staffing agencies were being used to staff the FEMA crisis needs. This was a paid position, but it was not easy whatsoever. We did not have a choice where we would work. The initial contract was for 21 days, but I extended for a full 11 weeks. All the nurses were accommodated in different hotels close to Times Square. I flew back home to Texas on July 2, after my 77-day assignment.
Did you work in the ED or in another branch of the hospital?
We were not assigned to a particular unit before leaving, so flying in, you didn’t have a clue what type of unit you would be assigned to work in. My assignment ended up being in a long-term care facility on the COVID-assigned floor for residents who tested positive for COVID or those who were there for rehabilitation after being hospitalized for COVID.
On a crisis assignment, you are expected to work every day until further notice, so for several weeks straight we had no days off. As a night shifter, we were expected to be on the bus on the way to our assignment by 6 p.m., report by 6:45 p.m., stay on patient assignment until 7 a.m., and then return back to our hotel to sleep and repeat.
I have worked night shift for the majority of my nursing career. I’ve always been a night owl. Honestly, working nights has been the only way to spend the most time with my kids as a working mom. When I had my babies, I was able to nap and breastfeed during the day. As they have gotten older, I slept while they were in school and drank my coffee waiting in the school car line, rocking my pajamas and sunglasses. Life as a nurse isn’t glamorous at all, but it is a great career to have when you are supporting and raising a family.
What were your biggest challenges during this time as a relief nurse?
There were also a lot of very sad cases on our unit, which is always difficult. One was a woman, in her late 80s, who had several comorbidities and was in the dying process. I had to help her daughter say goodbye to her mother over the phone, listening as she sang her mother songs and said her goodbyes. Since she wasn’t able to be there in person, I made it my priority to be there in her place.
Over a few days, I held the woman’s hand and stayed at her bedside as much as possible until it was finally her time. It was a night of grieving, not only for my patient and her daughter, but in memory of all the loved ones I had lost not long before my son passed away. In only three short years, I had lost two uncles and both of my maternal grandparents, then shortly after, my youngest son, Gavin at 2 and a half years old.
I am not a stranger to death, but because I am around it so often, it doesn’t always sting the way that it does with most. Many nurses can understand this. Being next to this dying woman, I wept and cried over my own losses, holding her hand in place of those that I wasn’t able to. Once she took her last breath, I called her daughter and wept with her as well. I won’t ever forget that night.
What were your greatest rewards?
I’m grateful for the time this journey gave me to heal after the death of my youngest son, Gavin, and to reflect on my own personal self-work and journey. I made friendships and connections that I will never forget, and I had the opportunity to work with people from all over the world. There were staff and residents from China, Haiti, Jamaica, the Philippines, Mexico, and more. It was rewarding to know that I was able to work and help in this crucial moment of history. I am so thankful that I was able to gain so much insight into COVID-19 by being immersed in the epicenter, in a medical mission that God brought directly to me.
Many states are going into red zones again and shutting down. Would you work as a relief nurse again?
I would, but I would stay local instead. The hospital systems in the metroplex are being overrun right now, and my current jobs are so short-staffed. Giving back to my own community and being available here is my priority.
What would you say to other nurses who may be thinking about helping at hospitals in states or cities with the greatest need? What should they know and keep in mind?
I think they should absolutely go for it, but don’t follow the money. Working in this COVID crisis is hard work. They must be ready to face frustrations against a virus for which we are still trying to find a treatment that will work.