Balmer takes her place at COVID-19 ground zero

Aubrey Balmer takes a selfie in her PPE gear during training.

Brittney Lofthouse – Contributing Writer

Health care workers receive an introduction and assignments when Balmer first arrived in NYC.

Editor’s note: In last week’s Macon County News, Brittney Lofthouse interviewed Aubrey Balmer, a Family Nurse Practitioner, who was headed to New York to serve on the frontlines of the Covid-19 crisis. The following chronicles her first week on the job.

Last Wednesday at 4 p.m., Aubrey Balmer boarded a plane to New York City. Despite a relatively long career in the medical field, she was on her way to something she had no idea how to prepare for – all she knew was she was called to be there. 

Balmer, a Family Nurse Practitioner from Franklin, felt compelled to use her medical knowledge to help those most in need during the COVID-19 pandemic. She boarded a flight and headed to New York City, the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States. 

A view inside the makeshift Emergency Room that was set up outside of Bille Jean Stadium that Balmer was assigned to. Balmer helped set up the ER when she arrived. The photo was taken before the site started accepting patients.

Shortly after arriving to contract for 30 days straight,   working 12 hour shifts, Balmer was assigned to staff a makeshift Emergency Room set up at the Billie Jean Stadium.  

“What I do each shift varies daily… sometimes more than that,” said Balmer. “Originally we were going to be only Covid, then it switched to non-Covid overflow, then we started receiving patients that are only Covid overflow.”

Balmer said that the day-to-day changes with the need. “We were told we would not be going into hospitals, but in the plan set forth by emergency management there was a clause that if the need was critical we would be utilized in a hospital,” said Balmer. “We are working to debulk New York Health and Hospitals by taking overflow who are in beds in the cafeterias, or med surg units that were made into pseudo ICUs. Hospital rotations should be starting [soon].”

Sunday night a round of storms blew through the city, which took a toll on another tent hospital erected in the city, which meant Balmer and her team were preparing to fill the gap. 

“Over the past few days we have had a lot of training and developed teams,” she said. “We work in teams of two MDs, four advanced practice providers, five nurses and two paramedics for a 12-hour shift. We start with 20 moderately ill COVID patients per team. The number of patients admitted vary; today [Monday] we got only 13. But with the winds last night we were set to get 60 patients from a tent hospital in another sector. Those not on rotations are being cycled into the hospitals.”

Prior to the assignment, Balmer said she tried to shelter herself from the news surrounding the pandemic, so being in the middle of it, is her first and best account of how the crisis is impacting the city. 

“I’ve really tried to shelter myself from the news,” she said. “But, what I can speak to is that when you look at the city it appears like things are calm. Life has slowed down. But, in the hospital there is an overwhelming number of admissions and an increase in loss of life is happening. The toll on healthcare workers’ psyche and health is significant. We have traumatologists on site in every field hospital.”

Despite the challenge and the obvious toll it is taking on healthcare workers and the entire nation, Balmer remained optimistic and reiterated the positives. 

“One key point to remember is the majority of cases will improve,” said Balmer. “Not every Covid case will end up in futile resuscitation efforts. The majority of my patients have improved.  My personal and professional advice is, if you are worried about getting sick or dying, focus on what you do have control over. How you improve your overall health and build up your immune system is one of the best things you can do. That includes a diet low in processed foods and sugars, good rest, good hygiene, supplements like Vitamin C and probiotics. Don’t live in fear, but be wise to follow suggestions that were put in place to protect you and prevent the spread of the virus.”

With the first week behind her, Balmer said she continues to prepare for the evolving situation and being ready to help where she is able. 

“Hurry up and wait is normal when these things start. You don’t anticipate the training or that maybe they only had enough help to open one side of the rooms and any available hand will be needed to sort hundreds of boxes of medicine and take inventory, set up beds, or offer training to each other,” said Balmer. “We opened for patients five days early. The thing with crisis and Covid is no one has it figured out yet. We have some insights from what has transpired to this point, but treatment is still a work in progress.” 

Each day has a new set of challenges and can be completely different than the day before. Balmer said she doesn’t have any expectations for the next three weeks because it is all changes so rapidly. 

“I can’t speak to my expectations yet,” she said. “The OEM director who New York City contracted,  also largely oversaw 9/11 and relief in Hurricane Katrina said to me last night that there have been spikes in Queens, Bronx, and Harlem-working class folks that have to go to work. Trains were decreased resulting in crowding. We may get 15 transfers a day, we may be getting 60 in the next two hours. What good will expectations do? It’s best to just roll with the punches and enjoy the people you’re with.”

Balmer is asking the Macon County community to help spread kindness for patients she encounters by sending cards for them. “If your kids are bored and want to do an ‘art’ class please have them make get well cards or signs for our patients,” asked Aubrey. “They haven’t seen their families in days, weeks and we can brighten their days with colorful well wishes.”

Cards can be mailed to:

Courtyard by Marriott, JFK

Room 712, Aubrey Balmer

145-11 N Conduit Ave

Queens, NY 11436