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Nurse on the front line: 'We cry at the end of every shift. I've never cried like this.'

Betty Bell, who joined Good Samaritan Hospital Medical

Betty Bell, who joined Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center in West Islip, said one of the more uplifting parts of the day is when a COVID-19 patient is discharged and the public address system at the hospital plays "Here Comes the Sun" by the Beatles. Credit: Betty Bell

Hundreds of nurses from near and far are joining Long Island hospitals to help on the front lines in the battle against COVID-19.

Northwell Health said it has spent more than $70 million to have staffing agencies identify and move nurses, respiratory therapists and other support staff from less-impacted regions of the country to Long Island. 

More than 300 nurses are joining Northwell, with more than 86% coming from out of state. Northwell has 19 hospitals, including 11 on Long Island.

"We are going to need the extra support for a while, because when this crisis is over, we are going to want a lot of our nurses to take time off," said Carolyn Doyle, vice president at Northwell Health's internal staffing agency. 

Even local traveling nurses such as Betty Bell of Islip Terrace are stepping up and joining hospitals. Bell works as a traveling trauma nurse, but agreed to a 13-week contract at Catholic Health Services' Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center in West Islip. She's now a front-line worker.

"The patients have no connection to the outside world except us, so we are doing FaceTime with their families," she said. "We fight for them. We are emotional. We cry. We cry at the end of every shift. I've never cried like this."

Catholic Health Services has hired an extra 100 nurses to help at its six Long Island hospitals and also is transferring clinical support staff from its physician practices and affiliates to hospitals.

Stony Brook University Hospital has brought in more than 20 nurses from SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse.

Some nurses come with years of disaster relief experience, while others are entering the emergency room fray for the first time. But most say the same thing: They have cried.

"I'm not an emotional person, but walking into the hospital, I got teary," said Jessica Falgiatano of Cicero, New York, a registered nurse from SUNY Upstate who is working at Stony Brook's medical ICU. "To walk through and see all the COVID patients, to see some of them on ventilators, it was overwhelming."

Falgiatano said she ended up on Long Island after her manager asked staff if anyone would be willing to help.

"There weren't many details, only that we were being asked to come for two weeks," she said. "I just felt like it was the right thing to do."

She left a family of five behind, but "my husband is a firefighter and a paramedic, so he was completely supportive."

Northwell's reinforcements include nurses from California, New Orleans, Philadelphia and a town of about 1,000 residents in Wisconsin.

Ellen Hanson, a registered nurse from Cashton, Wisconsin, said she has traveled to help with disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, superstorm Sandy, an earthquake in Ecuador and a tent hospital in a war region of Iraq. She also was in Liberia during the Ebola outbreak. Now, she is stationed in Riverhead for six weeks, to help primarily at Peconic Bay Medical Center.

"This is difficult every time," Hanson said. "Each person is someone's mother, father, daughter or son. Professionally, you try to remove yourself from the personal part of it, but this is overwhelming."

Geena Raju, a nurse practitioner and registered nurse at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia who will work at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, added, "I had to be out here to be with my brothers and sisters. Nurses are so stressed and overworked, and when they see us, they're all so thankful."

Bell said one of the more uplifting parts of the day is when a COVID-19 patient is discharged and the public address system at the hospital plays "Here Comes the Sun" by the Beatles.

"The experience with the nurses, with everyone, has made me want to make Good Samaritan my home," she said.

Executives at the hospitals said they're grateful for the support.

"I can't stress enough how much of a boost this is to our nurses," said Carolyn Santora, chief of regulatory affairs and interim chief nursing officer at Stony Brook. "We are all in this together. Hopefully, this doesn't become an issue Upstate. But if it does, we will support them."

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