'Wartime nursing': Mother and daughter on front lines of coronavirus pandemic

DARIEN — The alarm froze everyone in their tracks.

“Code blues” were far more frequent, but this screeching sound suddenly had a far greater sense of urgency as it came over the public address system at Lenox Hill Hospital as the coronavirus crisis gripped New York.

It was the peak of patients being treated who couldn’t breathe — and the alarm meant the hospital itself was running critically low on oxygen.

“It was the scariest moment for everyone,” said Darien native Emily Fawcett, a floating nurse at the hospital.

“All of a sudden, all of those alarms meant those who were on oxygen had their oxygen not working,” she said.

The hospital staff frantically switched these critically ill patients to manual oxygen tanks and operated the machines until the supply was replenished — it was about 30 minutes of pure panic, Fawcett said.

“That was the worst,” she said.

“There were so many patients on oxygen, it overloaded the whole system. This was wartime nursing. It was a war zone. But we made it through.”

Like most others on Sunday, Fawcett, 30, and her mother Sharon will use FaceTime to celebrate Mother’s Day, unable to be together due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Fawcetts share a unique bond: They’re both registered nurses on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis.

Sharon Fawcett, 62, has been a nurse for 40 years, and when she’s not treating coronavirus patients at Norwalk Hospital, she’s providing a support system for her daughter.

“Being able to call her — she knows what’s going on, she knows how hot our gear is, the masks we have to wear, the gowns we have to wear,” Emily said. “She knows what it’s like to have to intubate or put patients on ventilators. She knows what it’s like to constantly have to hear the code blues overhead.

“It’s been really nice to decompress with her. Of course, she was very worried about me in the beginning,” she said.

Sharon said it would be an “understatement” to say she’s proud of her daughter.

“She’s given me so much strength,” Sharon said.

Emily, a 2007 Darien High grad and former EMT with Post 53, has drawn national attention with her idea of “hope huddles,” as a way to keep hospital morale up during the pandemic. She’s been featured in the New York media and was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey for her magazine.

“I was on a text thread late at night with some of my ER nurse friends and they were telling me how they were literally having mental breakdowns. That it was the first time they had ever cried at work. They just weren’t doing well,” Emily said.

“They just kept getting sick patient after sick patient — we were getting 20- and 30-year-olds on ventilators. It was just heartbreaking for them.”

The idea for hope huddles is for the nurses to gather with their team every morning and hear the positive news around the hospital like the amount of discharges and how many patients have come off ventilators.

“Just some good, positive stories to boost the morale a little bit,” Emily said.

‘An absolute nightmare’

With New York City as the hotbed of the coronavirus outbreak, Emily said it was “an absolute nightmare” when the crisis began two months ago.

“The amount of patients coming in, and the amount of sick patients coming in, was insane,” she said. “They would need to get in rooms right away and on a breathing tube.”

With about 400 coronavirus patients at the height of the pandemic, Lenox Hill converted about five units literally overnight to COVID wards, Emily said.

“We were only COVID for about a month and a half,” she said.

“My whole nursing expertise became only how to treat these patients, which took a while to learn.”

In her four decades as a nurse, a career that began in the early days of HIV, Sharon says she’s never seen anything like the COVID pandemic.

“All of us are totally new to this,” the Darien resident said. “Everything is changing and most of us hate change. It has been really, really tough and stressful. I’m more physically and emotionally exhausted than I ever have been.

“This is absolutely the most challenging thing for everyone. When has it ever been that a family member can’t visit a family member in the hospital?”

Sharon said patients are dying and can’t have a family member hold their hand.

“They’re watching them taking their last breaths over Zoom,” she said.

One couple stood out to Emily. During the early stages of the crisis, a woman brought in her husband who was very sick.

“He was incredibly sick and had to be immediately put on a ventilator,” Emily said. “The next week, the wife shows up and she is my patient.”

Knowing how sick her husband was, the woman prayed and cried with Emily each night.

The couple had no children, so Emily facilitated a call with the woman’s nephew to arrange for him to become their health care proxy.

“One day, I came in and he had gotten better. He was off the ventilator and in the same room with her. I got to meet the man I had been praying for. And they ended up going home together,” Emily said.

Sharon, who is typically a joint replacement center nurse, said her patients are usually healthy, optimistic and well prepared for their surgeries. But her days in Norwalk are much different now, including one difficult moment caring for a patient in her 80s.

“She wasn’t doing well. We had put her on comfort measures and a morphine drip,” Sharon said. “We called her daughter, so her daughter’s voice was the last thing she’d hear.”

“That was hard,” she said.

Emily said Lenox Hill is now down to about 150 coronavirus patients and has started treating other patients again. However, that slowdown has its own challenges.

“It creates a whole new slew of emotions,” she said. “As the adrenaline winds down, it feels weird to be coming out of it. You really start to process things. We have anxiety about if there’s a second surge, will it be as bad as the first one? I equate it to a soldier who comes home from war. My colleagues are having the same emotions.”

Sharon said the patient influx in Norwalk is also easing up. However, she added that “we cannot let our guard down.”

“We still need to be extremely cautious,” she said. “There is still so much we don’t know. We need to continue to self quarantine and be really vigilant about social distancing. I’m still really worried if we have a peak in the fall.”

“I don’t know if we will ever return to normal,” she said.

Call to service

Emily said her family has been very supportive of her career, which got its start as a member of the Post 53 EMS squad while she was in high school.

“One could tell immediately that she had leadership qualities as she rose through the ranks and ultimately became an excellent EMT and crew chief,” said Susan Warren, the former head of Post 53.

Warren said Emily enjoyed being a mentor for younger squad members and always set a good example for them.

“All these characteristics, I feel sure, have helped her stay strong and again be a compassionate leader on the front lines during these incredibly challenging times,” Warren said.

Janice Marzano, program director of The Depot Youth Center, said she’d known Emily all her life, and she was always defined by compassion. Marzano said as a child on the playground, Emily would often respond to help a classmate who might have gotten hurt.

“It has been a privilege to know her,” Marzano said.

Sharon, who is widowed, has found strength through her daughter.

“She’s my rock. She puts things in perspective. When I start to talk about something, she says, ‘Mom, that doesn’t matter right now. We’re in a pandemic,’” Sharon said.

“People ask me if I’m worried about her being down there. I’m not. She has so much support down there. I’m so proud of her. She’s inspirational.”

Sharon’s other daughter, Jessica, remains nearby — just a few houses away with her husband and three children, ages 5, 3 and 1.

Sharon said her grandchildren “are learning a lot right now.”

Emily’s world is a bit different, surrounded by medical professionals and other nurses as roommates.

“I was a lucky one going home to two other nurses in an apartment in Manhattan. I had no husband or kids to worry about,” she said. “I didn’t think about getting sick at all. I never had any time to worry about it. I had to take care of patients.”

Sharon said she’s never been in this situation where work threatens her own health.

“We have nurses out with it, and one nurse who just left who had been really sick. He was intubated,” Sharon said. “It is scary. It is a huge threat. But you’ve just got to take care of yourself, get rest, exercise and eat properly.”

She said the pandemic has made her better at her job.

“I feel like this has made me a stronger and more compassionate nurse,” she said. “I’ve dug deep and found courage and resilience that I never thought I would have.”

As she nears retirement age, Sharon says friends ask if she’d consider walking away to avoid further risks.

“Do it now? I couldn’t retire now,” she said.

“Morally, I just couldn’t do it.”