Brittney Lofthouse – Contributing Writer
After three weeks working on the front lines of COVID19 in New York City Franklin native Aubrey Balmer got her orders to return home this week.
“I was released from the assignment yesterday morning and I fly out today,” Balmer said Tuesday morning.
On April 7, New York City had reported 68,776 cases of the virus with 15,333 people hospitalized and 2,738 deaths. As of Tuesday, April 28, the city had 292,027 cases and reported 17,303 people had died. But the number of new cases in the state seems to have reached a plateau, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has said, “I believe the worst is over if we continue to be smart.”
While the outbreak in New York City is improving, there is still a need for medical workers across the country to help the city stabilize and progress. Just as Balmer was to return home to her family, two Franklin residents, Jami Fletcher and Stephanie Crabtree travelled to New York to work on the front lines.
“My last hooray is I’m running in Central Park this morning with Jami,” said Balmer. “I knew Jami was coming out, and we had hoped to be in the same hotel to help take care of each other. In most situations in life, it’s good to have a solid friend. It’s such a comfort to think Jami and Stephanie are here, I think we all know if anything bad happened we’d all be willing to hop in a taxi and help.”
Balmer said that although she was a long way from home for the past three weeks, she was never alone.
“I was worried before I came that if I fell ill or needed help I would be all alone,” said Balmer. “I didn’t expect to develop such good relationships with my coworkers so quickly. I knew after a few days in the trenches with my new provider buddies, we had each other’s back. There were a few tears, and honestly I’m processing a few things. But, we turned stress into laughter. And if I’m honest, it was a liberating adventure. My patients were wonderful, the coworkers were amazing.”
As she has done throughout her journey, Balmer looks for the positives and how she can learn from her experience.
“It’s been such a rewarding experience,” said Balmer. “And seeing a city that is normally withdrawn transform into welcoming and supportive community is awesome. It will be interesting to see how COVID alters our society from here on out. It’s not going to go away. My hope is that this somehow sparks a desire in our population to become healthy and build a healthy immune system.”
Crabtree graduated with an associates degree in nursing in 2013 from Southwestern Community College and started working at Angel Medical Center. Crabtree continued to work at Angel Medical Center while obtaining her Bachelor’s Degree of Science in nursing.
In 2017, Crabtree took a job at Mountain Lakes Medical Center in Clayton, Ga., before transferring to Northeast Georgia Medical Center to gain experience working in the trauma center, which she needs to become a flight nurse, which is her ultimate career goal.
“I absolutely love Northeast Georgia Medical center, they are a wonderful organization to work for and I have learned so much in my short two-and-a-half years there,” she said. “When I first heard of the crisis in New York, I had a small little draw to want to go help but we were still busy in Gainesville and unsure of the direction the pandemic would go,” she said. “After the shutdowns, It slowed everything down. We were having to on-call or be cancelled for a shift a lot due to low census. I had made the decision to go PRN [part-time as needed] in January after dealing with childcare issues and wanting to be home with my boys more. After my hours started being cut, the thought of New York came back. If my skills weren’t needed here, then I should go where the need is. They need nurses and I felt bad that I was only working one day a week. I wanted to help.”
When Crabtree made the decision to work in New York, she did so with the support of her husband Stephan and their two boys, Abel and Parrish. Crabtree is also expecting her third child in November, something she found out shortly before getting the call to head to New York.
“I signed up to go through Team Rubicon, which is an organization that mobilizes veterans to serve communities during disasters. I was told they needed nurses and it did not matter that I was not a veteran, that they were taking civilians,” said Crabtree. “So after talking to Stephan I put my name in to go. I got an email that said I would be getting a call soon. That was on a Thursday. I was driving home from work that day and honestly a little overwhelmed. I felt God tugging at my heart to go serve in New York but a few weeks prior we had found out we were pregnant which added some anxiety about going. God has been working on my heart a lot this past year, and I have been focusing on trusting Him no matter what, and leaning on Him for strength and not trying to do it all on my own or be in control.”
Like Balmer, Crabtree’s desire to serve in New York was fueled by her faith in God.
“Our family has been through a lot, and we couldn’t get through the hard times without leaning on God,” said Crabtree. “It’s an amazing thing when you can let go and let God. I knew that if he was putting a desire to go to New York on my heart there was a reason and all I needed to do was trust Him. The night I was driving home from work, I was crying out to God and praying. Honestly the thought of coming to New York was very scary especially pregnant. The thought of leaving my boys for four weeks was a little overwhelming. But I trusted Him and I prayed, “God if this is what you want me to do then open the doors and I will go.” The next day I received a call and he asked “how soon can you get here?” That day I set up child care for the boys, got my shifts covered at work, and bought a plane ticket.”
Crabtree is bracing for changes and the unknowns – while conditions in the city are improving, there is still a long road ahead.
“We have been told to expect our numbers to rise as we are trying to debulk the hospital and facilitate patients’ recovery so that they can go home,” said Crabtree. “We also have a palliative care unit attached to ours where we provide hospice care to those that are dying from the disease. In the palliative care unit families are able to visit. We have been told to possibly be expecting our palliative care numbers to rise as they are having to make tough decisions to extubate (take them off the ventilator) people. Most of them will likely die as they have been on a ventilator for close to 30 days.”
With encouragement from her son – and the support of the community, Crabtree believes she made the right choice to answer the call. On Tuesday, she received a care package from friends and neighbors in Macon County with dozens of cards to give those she is treating in New York.
“I am so thankful for all the support from our community, family, church family, and friends,” said Crabtree. “This experience so far has been humbling. I am not anything special, and I don’t want people to recognize me. It’s not me. This is all God. He paved the way, He opened the doors and He worked out all the details. All I did was say yes to God. It’s amazing what He can do and How he can use us if we just trust Him and say “Yes Lord, here I am, send me.”