Cyra Uy, a nurse on an infectious disease unit, felt a bit of anxiety getting ready to care for a new patient.
The bearded man she was about to examine was her first patient with COVID-19 and one of the first at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Hospital.
His cough troubled her. It increased the risk of exposure.
But Uy had a job to do. Wearing a gown, gloves, goggles and a snug N95 mask, she entered an isolation room on Eight North on March 22 and introduced herself to David Green, 55, a businessman from Manheim Township who was feverish and despairing.
Uy, 27, listened to his heart and lungs and found his condition more dire than she expected for a middle-aged man whose only other health issue was arthritis.
“He was barely able to take a deep breath for me,” Uy said.
So far in Lancaster County, the novel coronavirus pandemic has killed at least 140 people.
But this is the story of one man who survived a severe COVID-19 infection and a nurse who helped get him back home.
Green had a close call, but gradually recovered and is back to work and normal activities. He choked up in expressing gratitude for the care he received.
“Not only did they save my life,” he said, “they went above and beyond to make me better, encourage me and give me hope.”
In February, Green traveled to Seattle and elsewhere on business. He was home March 9 when he developed a fever.
Three days later, Green got a test for flu and COVID-19 at his doctor’s office. Four days after that, he got a chest X-ray at Lancaster General’s emergency department.
But Green tested negative for COVID-19 and flu.
“I wasn’t sure what to think,” he said. He was getting sicker.
On March 19, Green found himself in an ambulance taking him to the hospital. After more tests in the emergency room, doctors admitted Green to the intensive care unit and put him on a continuous positive air pressure, or CPAP, machine to help him breathe.
This time, Green’s coronavirus test came back positive, making him one of the first with COVID-19 admitted to the hospital.
Green started on hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin. When he took a second dose 12 hours later, he was breathing easier and feeling more alert.
Later that night, Green no longer needed the CPAP. He moved to the 18-bed infectious disease unit set aside for COVID-19 patients who don’t need critical care.
Uy became one of his nurses.
Precautions and concern
Uy, a nurse for three years, two of those at Lancaster General, knew by early March that it wouldn’t be long before she would be caring for COVID-19 patients. She read up on the disease and felt prepared.
“We knew what we were getting into,” Uy said, “but it doesn’t stop us from being scared.”
Uy checks her temperature twice daily. On arriving for work, she changes into scrubs. Before entering a patient’s room, she dons protective gear. She consults a checklist of precautions before going in. A colleague helps remove the gear when she comes out. At the end of a shift, she changes clothes and wipes her shoes with bleach.
COVID-19 has kept the hospital busy, but at no point has it been overwhelmed.
Thirty-four coronavirus patients have died at the hospital. On Saturday, the hospital was treating 51 COVID-19 patients, nine on ventilators.
Lancaster General Health’s 9,250 employees have continued working despite the risk. A total of 80 have tested positive, about half of them from exposures at work, the hospital said. None have died.
Uy continues to go to work.
“I do my job, and if something happens,” she said, “then I know I have support from co-workers and everyone else in the hospital. You hope for the best, but if you meet the worst, you’d be OK with it. It’s for a purpose.”
Well wishes and donations of food from the community buoy morale.
“We are feeling the love,” Uy said.
Green fought loneliness by FaceTiming with his wife, Kate, and a daughter, Elizabeth, 27, several times a day.
Uy’s duties went beyond direct care. She visited Green for 30 to 60 minutes at a time, always with purpose and taking no guff.
Early on, she brought in a chair.
“We need to get you out of bed and off the oxygen, or you’re never going to get better,” she told him.
“What if I suffocate?” he said.
“I guarantee you’re not going to suffocate,” she replied.
She pushed Green to brush teeth, shower and establish a routine. She encouraged him to strengthen his lungs by breathing into a tube with a gauge.
“It makes me cough,” he protested.
“It’s supposed to make you cough,” Uy said. “You don’t get better unless you cough.”
Importantly, she engaged him in conversation and banter to raise his spirits.
“Nice shirt,” Uy said on her first visit, referencing a blue paisley shirt on a ledge. “What do you do for a living?”
Green explained his work designing commercial spaces.
“I thought you looked like a designer, just by the shirt,” Uy said. “I would’ve been able to pick you out of a crowd.”
Uy was a natural at making Green feel comfortable, he said, and they became fast buddies.
One time he was running a fever and not feeling great. Uy took his hand into hers.
“Just to feel the touch of someone else, and the strength that comes from that,” he said, “it was better than any medicine. It gave me hope.”
Because aides don’t work on the COVID-19 unit, Uy had other duties when she cared for Green.
“She had to do everything,” Green said, “including wiping all the surfaces down, cleaning the room, changing the bed linens, taking out the garbage.”
Despite the time they spent together, Green never saw Uy’s face.
After six days, the hospital on March 25 discharged Green home for 14 days of self-isolation.
Green had finished the treatment, had fewer fevers and was breathing easier, but he was worried about leaving.
“There are fears,” he said. “You don’t know if you can re-catch it.”
Since helping to nurse Green back to health, Uy has cared for at least 15 other patients with COVID-19.
“I catch myself feeling like this is just normal, this is just another day of work,” she said.
Uy banishes such thoughts. She knows she needs to keep her guard up.
Green no longer has fevers or a cough. Surviving a critical illness drove home the fragility of life and the importance of family, friends and faith, he said. He gained a deep appreciation for health care workers.
Before he left the hospital, Green got dressed into the clothes he wore on admission. On seeing him head out, Uy couldn’t resist teasing him a final time.
“You would wear a blue paisley shirt,” she said.
Behind her mask, she was smiling.