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An Interview With Julia Owen About Her Experience Working in the COVID-19 ICU at NYU Hospital

Former SAC Assistant Director, Julia Owen shares her experience working on the front-line at NYU hospital and connects her current work back to SAC.

Beth Jacoby:  How did you end up in the NYU Hospital critical care COVID Unit?

Julia Owen:  As the need for more beds for COVID patients grew, our hospital started converting more and more units to COVID units. Our unit is split in half, one side has 18 beds and the other has 16. One morning I came in and we spent the day clearing out our regular patients from the 18-bed side, sending them to non-COVID floors, and within about 30 hours the need was so great that we became a 34-bed COVID ICU [intensive care unit]. 

Beth: Your Grandmother Julie told me that you were promoted to be the charge nurse of your unit. Can you tell me about that?

Julia: Every shift a nurse is appointed as “charge nurse” and is there to deal with administrative things (like assigning new patients to beds), as a resource for the rest of the nurses, and to ensure general safety and well-being of the patients on the floor. The week our hospital started getting COVID patients and eventually became a COVID ICU, I was the charge nurse. 

Beth:  Can you describe the “climate” or energy in your unit among your co-workers?  

Julie:  The energy among the staff has really fluctuated in the past 4-6 weeks. For the first 3-4 weeks, staffing was unbelievably low, patient admission rate was sky high, supplies and equipment availability was at an all-time low… it was a very stressful time. Patients who were so sick that their nurse, who would under normal circumstance only have them as their one patient for the shift, had two or sometimes three of those extremely ill patients. We ran out of a number of medications early on, especially those to keep patients sedated and paralyzed. And we also ran out of many of the tools we use to monitor sedation and paralysis, among many other things. 

In the beginning weeks, stress levels were extremely high, as we weren’t well equipped for the work we were doing, and as a whole, we as a hospital had so little understanding of what we were dealing with that we all (doctors, nurses, etc) felt like we were just addressing symptoms instead of treating the illness. As we have gained insight into the disease process of COVID, hired more staff, and started to address some of the equipment and medication shortages, though, the mood in the hospital is much better. We of course still take what we’re doing very seriously, but we’re much more united as we fight the fight, and we’re able to find ways to find laughter and smiles in between battles.

Beth: How do you gear-up emotionally each day to do this work?

Julia: This work is extremely challenging, and we all have different ways of coping with that. For me, it’s finding ways to connect with people (on the phone or FaceTime) outside of work to either vent or get my mind away from the hospital. At the end of the day, this is my job so I’m going to keep showing up to work. But I feel truly blessed to be able to be helpful in this time, and that gratitude does make it easier.

Beth: How, if at all, did working for Sephardic Adventure Camp prepare you for this job?

Julia:  It’s funny that you should ask. At the end of the first week of taking COVID patients on our floor, after I had been charge of our 34-bed ICU without having ever even been ICU trained, I was talking to Marissa Almoslino, [former SAC Programming Director], and she asked how I felt about my week. I told her that to be honest I had kicked butt, and that I felt like I had been in complete “camp mode” the whole time. 

At camp we have to find ways to triage- to troubleshoot quickly and creatively, and to communicate those changes effectively. We think big picture about how each moment can contribute to each camper’s growth and enjoyment, but we do that without losing sight of the tiny details. There is an incredible amount of sensory input, and yet so many small things to remember and keep track of. And these are just some of my SAC skills I found myself using in those first few days as charge, and certainly beyond. 

As I’ve expressed to Marissa a few times, in so many areas of my life I’m so grateful for all of my camp experience, but it would not be an exaggeration to say that in this case the Sephardic Adventure Camper in me helped save at least a few lives. 

Beth: What do you want to tell the community about COVID-19:  Any message from the front line?

Julia:  Yes! What I want to say is, thank you! Thank you for staying home to quarantine, for socially distancing, and for wearing masks and washing your hands when you do have to go out. It’s so hard to stay inside, and it requires so much discipline and patience, especially for those with kids, but I can’t possibly stress enough how important it is that you continue to practice these things. 

If I could give everyone I know a 10-second tour of my unit I would, and I assure you if I could do that you’d all stay indoors with absolute clarity in your mind regarding its importance. But since you can’t see what my floor looks like, the true war zone it has become, please just believe me when I say that your efforts are not wasted. Your frustration and energy is not for nothing. You are saving your own lives, the lives of your loved ones, and the lives of strangers who might be more at-risk than you.

One of the hardest things for us as frontline workers is seeing that our 60-80 hour weeks are undone with the simple act of a few people who weren’t willing to isolate, socially distance, or take proper precautions like hand hygiene or wearing a mask. Please, do us all and yourselves a favor and stay protected! Let us all stay safe and healthy in this challenging time. 

Julia Owen is an RN at NYU Langone Health.  She graduated from the NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing and Yeshiva University.  Julia was a former SAC Camper and worked in many staff positions at SAC including Assistant Director.  She was born and raised in Seattle, WA, and graduated from Northwest Yeshiva High School. She is currently living in New York. 


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