Penny's Passion: New York State of Mind

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

New York State of Mind

Welcome to Thinking Out Loud Thursday!  Remember back in May when I talked about my work colleague, Dan Gassel, who was in New York coordinating the housing effort for the visiting nurses that were working on the COVID crisis?  If you missed that post, you can catch it HERE.  Well, today I'm once again thinking about Dan and the impact he is making.  

He shared an article with me that he wrote for the kids' school newsletter.  It was so touching and eye-opening that I really wanted to share it with you!  There are two hyperlinks in this article that I've highlighted in red.  Don't miss linking over to read what they are about.  Oh - and you might want to have a tissue handy.  His words are pretty powerful!

So with no further ado, here is Dan's story ~

Dan Gassel poses at the famous New York city sign of Hope. 

I’ve had the gift of time, during a fourteen-day Quarantine, to begin to try making sense of what I was a part of, in the streets and hospitals of Manhattan and its surrounding boroughs. I was part of a Rapid Response Team to help maneuver 3,400 nurses throughout eighteen New York hospitals and facilities to attempt to suppress, and get ahead of, the COVID-19 crisis in the most prominent hot spot of the United States. I realized pretty quickly, I was encountering angels every day, as we all banded together to help the New York community.
One of the worst casualties of this epidemic was the loss of human contact. What can we do to navigate around that loss, when families can’t be with their loved ones, by their bedside? What can we do to support the front-line responders, many of whom had traveled long distances, to heed their call to serve?

We can love them. When we can’t hold their hand, or be next to them…..we can remind them that they are not alone…..and join them in their battle.

It all started with a phone call from a friend, checking in on me.  With my business of eighteen years (group meetings management in the world of hotels) sunk and a rebound a very long way away, I am looking for work. Thanks to a tip from a beautiful friend, (Angel #1), I found my way to a local staffing agency that was ramping up its staff to help manage the deployment of 3,400 nurses, bound for New York City.

This organization would be working in concert with eighteen community hospitals and facilities in the boroughs and outlying areas of New York City, including Harlem, Queens, Coney Island, and others. The government was supplying emergency funding to pay the field personnel (nurses, respiratory therapists, etc.) and support staff, and the task at hand was to get the right people in place as quickly and efficiently as possible. Our first wave of nurses arrived in late March.

I arrived in mid-April and hit the ground running as soon as I landed in a deserted LaGuardia Airport. My job on the rostering team (based in Overland Park) had morphed quickly into an onsite operations job on the ground in NYC. Within 18 hours of being asked, I was on a plane to LaGuardia, having been told to pack for a 6-8 week deployment. My tenure ended up lasting six weeks. I worked forty days straight, typically 80-90 hours per week. Work, shower, sleep. Repeat.

I was on a support team whose primary focus was to work alongside clinical experts, and ensure the hospitals were staffed in accordance with their needs. Assessments were made daily, to ensure supply matched demand based on the unexpected surges happening throughout the communities.

While I helped nurses through scheduling or rotation questions, our conversations would often drift into a retelling of a story from their day. Our conversations might last forty-five seconds during my busy shifts, or twenty minutes when I was off duty. If they wanted to talk, I was ready to listen to these self-effacing angels. I heard countless stories of nurses being the only “family member” to be with a patient during their hospital stay.

The nurses I met were all just incredibly inspiring; selfless; loving; resilient; confident; and they visibly carried a sense of service to help others.

2 Traveling nurses Veronica & Mary worked in Harlem

An angel named Veronica relayed what a sincere privilege it was to know that God had put her in this place, to care for a particular patient. “He would have passed away alone, and it’s not supposed to happen that way. I was where I needed to be, to be with him on his last day. I was so grateful for that moment; it was a sincere privilege to be there.” Geez, I don’t know many Veronica’s, but she may be as close as I ever get to the sixth Station of the Cross.

And Veronica’s buddy, a fellow traveling nurse, named Mary. They became fast friends, and I treasured my time visiting with them. They were so faith-filled, and a delight to be around. Veronica and Mary, together two thousand years ago helped ease our Lord’s pain when he passed away at Calvary, and here they are again in 2020, easing pain in Harlem. Perhaps there is now a cloth in Harlem somewhere with an image of Christ on it. After the things I witnessed, nothing would surprise me.


Emily from Little Rock, Arkansas shares support letters 
sent from Saints Family, the Zingg’s.

My jaw dropped when a nurse, who was on a list of nurses being demobilized to head home to Little Rock, instead asked her sister to mail her more clothes, while she made arrangements to become a full-time employee of her adopted hospital. “Um, where will you live?”, I asked. Seemed like a fair question. “Oh, I’ll figure it out. God will provide. He always does. The nurses at my assigned hospital need more help, and I can’t let them down. I’ll join their team.” “Um, what about your job back home?” I asked. Another fair question, because I’m curious like that. “Oh, I know I’m needed at my home hospital, but I know I’m needed here more. We’re all replaceable. ”

Shadoe Daniels and a colleague pose with Shadoe's impromptu 
designed non-rebreather mask.

A bouquet of Shadoe’s imperative bags, ready to deliver life-saving oxygen.

I met a Physician’s Assistant from Scranton, PA who is likely the closest thing to MacGyver in a lab coat who I have ever met. On his first night there, his overwhelmed hospital ran out of non-rebreather masks. The shortage was only temporary; an additional supply came in the next day. Yet for his night shift in his ICU, he decided to improvise and fashion a device that could deliver the life-saving oxygen many of his patients would need that night..

A staffer showed him a closet with various supplies, and he fashioned more than fifty life-saving non-rebreather masks out of medical supplies (I believe from never-used, hazardous-waste transport bags,) along with a roll of tape he had in his pocket. The quickly-fashioned masks were extremely effective.

Quickly, other hospital departments were asking him how the mask was made so they could also use them on their patients, as they feared running low on supplies as well. On the advice of a resident, he made a YouTube video with step-by-step instructions for how to recreate the life-saving device.

Necessity breeds invention, indeed.

Kiley Faller from Lincoln, Nebraska preparing comfort items for those in need.

I met a nurse from Lincoln, Nebraska who knew her patients in her nursing home to which she was assigned needed some comfort items. A phone call to her sister, and another to her church community, resulted in at least one hundred fifty pillows, more than 300 blankets, and countless slippers, pajamas, and personal care items. More than enough for her fifty-bed nursing home. She shared the leftovers with the other eight hundred nurses in our hotel in a philanthropy frenzy like I’ve never seen. I watched nurses carry 4 new pillows, a handful of new blankets, and sets of slippers, while talking like a kid shopping at Christmas for her mom. “Oh, I have just the patients on my floor who are going to love these. And one lady in particular? Blue is her favorite color, and this blue will match her eyes. She’s going to love this!” I wish you could see the joy these nurses had, knowing they had gifts to deliver to patients they had only met 2-3 days earlier. It was humbling to see how much joy they knew a simple pillow would bring to another. A pillow.

And this was only one nurse in one hotel. I heard stories in all of our five hotels each with at least 12-15 nurses who had so many supplies delivered from their families and friends back home. I also got a kick out of seeing the beautiful smirk on the face of the lone bellman, who delivered this bounty day in and day out. 40-50 large boxes wheeled down the hall at 3 pm….and empty cardboard hauled away at 8 pm. Repeat the next day. That’s a lot of work for just one bellman -- but his smirk gave his happiness away; he quietly knew that he was an important cog in this whole machine.

I could go on, -- but I’ll stop with just one more story. I came across a nurse who would hustle through the quiet hotel lobby around 4 pm every third or fourth day. (That was a slow time in the hotels… was still at work, and night-shift workers were barely waking up.) One day our paths crossed, and I asked if I could help her, as she looked to be in a bit of a hurry.

“No, I’m good,” she said. “This is my quiet time; a time to connect with my family back home.”

Turns out, she was hustling to a nearby FedEx store to ship off her breast milk to her infant child back home, and she wanted to make sure she was back in time to catch the bus to her evening shift. Wow. Even if I could lactate, I’m not sure I could swing that level of dedication for my own daughter. “Sorry, Claire. Here’s a bottle, and a nipple. You’ll figure it out.”

See? Angels every…..where……I …….looked.

7 - Embrace the Absurd sign 

There was a sign outside my hotel on 7th Avenue that greeted me every morning on my walk between hotels. “Embrace the Absurd.” How do you lasso absurdity, I wondered? You roundup a (large) number of steely-eyed cowboys who know they can make a difference, and you let them know they are appreciated for the sacrifices they are making.

The patients of New York needed care, and the resident nurses of these community hospitals needed assistance, to keep up with the case-load. But these travelling nurses from almost all fifty states needed to know that they were appreciated too. That’s where our Saints Community came in and helped.

Kathy the mail carrier was a very popular visitor as she 
delivered handwritten notes to staff workers.

Saints families helped me receive more than 1,500 letters that I was able to distribute to our nurses. (I stopped counting at 1,500; I was too busy.) We sent similar requests to five area Catholic grade schools as well.

I saw countless letters come in from Saints students and their parents. These letters were so appreciated. These were sought-after items, believe me. A simple handwritten note went such a long way. Along with sleep and coffee, I would add knowing they were not alone, and that they are appreciated, and loved, to the list of valuable currency for a nurse.

One particularly awesome angel (the Little Rock nurse, now living in New York!) so loved her note that she asked for a handful more. “Of course. How many do you need?” I asked.
“I need at least nine more for the nurses who are the resident staff of the hospital I’m assigned to. We keep getting called the heroes. But the real heroes are the nurses and staff at these hospitals who are going to be hereafter this cavalry leaves. We cannot forget them. They will love these notes. Make it 10!” Geez. I would have given her 110 if there weren’t so many of her fellow nurses who also needed them.

The hits from the Saints Community kept coming.

Letters ready to be delivered .

“What else can I do?”, asked Mary Cox, mother of Kate, ’19 grad and Claire, ’20 grad.
“Well, I know of a few nurses who are sick and confined to their 300 sq. ft hotel room for 10-14 days. How about you write a series of notes we can slip under her door every day?”
And the letters came. We packaged them with a novel, or one of those hip coloring books with colored pencil sets (a hot item for a nurse, or a hospitalized patient; who knew?), and helped provide a daily gift to her, thanks to a friend who cared enough to ask.

And the hits still kept coming….literally. Two Saints students crafted a Spotify playlist, aptly titled “Nurse Bus Ride.” It’s run time is a tidy one hour and one minute. That’s the amount of time it took a nurse to go between her New York Community Hospital and her hotel. Thirty minutes there; thirty minutes back. Those of you who know me know that I love music….and passing along this link was a real highlight for me. And it was so appreciated by the nurses!
Bus drivers would stream it through their speakers; (we had more than thirty-five motor coaches at the height of our operation, crisscrossing Manhattan and surrounding areas.) Tired nurses had it in their earbuds, either to rev up for the start of a shift or to wind down after another twelve-hour shift. They were being accompanied by George Benson and his guitar/scat-riff to his classic hit “On Broadway” as they made their way down Broadway --- how cool is that? Seriously?!!!

I would quietly play the playlist through my laptop as a nurse and I worked through some of her scheduling questions. If I had a line of nurses to see me, I’d step out from behind my desk, advise them how long their wait might be, and hand out some sealed letters from my Saints stash to accompany them while they waited. (Area DMV’s, take note……)
By the time they got to see me, they would routinely tell me – “Thank you so much. This note is just what I needed today.”

Besides being reminded every day to “Embrace the Absurd:”, I was also reminded of a phrase that is seen in our Saints hallways most every day. I hope we have not been overexposed to it so much, that we dismiss it. (Like, sadly, I had these past few years.)

The streets and hospitals of the country’s hot spot would do well to hear it too.

It’s where we need to start, when we really don’t know where to start.
The countless nurses who used their phones to Facetime with a patient’s family members, being the only conduit between loved ones who so wanted to be in the same room, yet could not.

And these nurses would provide this comfort day after day, after day, after day. And night, after night, after night. Twelve-hour shifts, for three weeks straight, with a few stray days off to hit their reset button. Then back to the front line for up to an additional eight weeks.

In the midst of this Covid cacophony, I realized something. When you’re faced with indecision or an upside-down world , and you don’t know what to do - there is one bullet. Love.

A patient, likely alone, with no family around? Where would they see this love? Bring in the angel, dressed in scrubs.

And what about the nurse? Bring in the support staff. The ones making sure the nurses were fed, had a cup of coffee ( a caffeinated thank you always, Coffee Pot Scott!), and had comfortable and safe accommodations, reliable private transportation; and a schedule that ensured the hospitals’ staffing needs were met. These nurses needed to know what love looks like. That was me and my fellow team members.

And the support staff? Your letters to us, and the care packages we received were all very much appreciated. And we always shared with those who didn’t get any mail that week. You take care of your own, whether it’s on a battlefield, in a high school hallway, or in a bunker masquerading as a hotel.

We have all grown to value our Community of Saints here in our quiet corner of Overland Park, Kanas. Never should we take this community for granted.

The Empire State building synced its lights to Billy Joel’s “Miami 2017” in a brand-new music-to-light show as the finale to the “Rise Up New York” telethon.

A sense of community in a hurting New York City was imperative. Community, and the love that comes with it, was needed to bring calm, and some odd sense of “normalcy” when our spiraling surroundings were anything but normal. The letters, the packages, the prayers, the May 11 special event fundraiser hosted by Tina Fey , highlighted by an acoustic Billy Joel performance in tandem with a synchronized light show on the top of the Empire State Building (one block from my hotel; it reminded me of a Collins Landers production as the light show accompanied me as I walked down Broadway and 42nd Street) - all of these gifts were needed to help nurture a needed sense of community.

Music can be powerful when we recognize that we need to heal; we need to unite, and, in this case, we have a need for calm. What better common denominator for a New Yorker (and for this guy from Overland Park, KS walking along Broadway that night), than an iconic song from Billy Joel, and its laser-appropriate lyrics. I’ll never forget that walk.

These gifts helped New York heal and it will continue to recover -- if people remember to love each other, above all else. It starts there.

So, in the end……that Amor Vincit Omnia thing? It’s more than just a logo on one of Serena’s cool long-sleeve tees, or some nifty calligraphy on a banner in our gym, or a time-tested message on a yellowing poster in beautiful Mr. Farnan’s Room.

Love should be our compass in this upside-down world. It starts here, and we can’t get “there” without it. The sooner our children learn this, the better.

Dan poses with a nurse who received a Dan Ciokot, Holy Spirit student, 
drawing in her mail delivery.

The scrubs-wearing angels I helped were so many things.

They were inspiring. They were selfless. They were confident in their abilities. They were loving. They had a heart of service. And they were incredibly resilient.

Are these not all the same attributes we want someone to notice about our children? The teaching, and mimicking, of all of these traits, starts in our homes. As parents, we know they are also honed in the classrooms, Chapel, campus, stage, and athletic fields of Saint Thomas Aquinas.

Closer to home, we know some of the angels in our lives don’t just wear scrubs. They wear khakis and a polo; or a suit and tie; or a skirt/blouse number; or a pair of shoes with only one heel (looking at you, Stephanie Turner.) They are the teachers and staff at Aquinas who show up every day to provide a safe environment that is conducive to learning. They challenge our children to work to the best of their abilities and help them in their journey to be an image of Christ to another. Speaking for all our fellow parents of past, current, and future Saints, please know how much we love you all. We acknowledge the vital role you have in our children’s lives, and we are grateful you are such an essential part of our community.

Amor Vincit Omnia. It’s where we should start when we don’t know where to start.

Dan Gassel

Can you see why I'm so proud of Dan?  Definitely one of the many angels helping us get through our current pandemic.  

Does this message inspire you to help?  If so, letters and notes to the nurses are still being distributed.  The forces have moved from New York to Texas.  Let's flood them with inspiring notes!  Mail yours to:
Scott Sloyer, CPS
c/o Krucial Staffing 
Wyndham Garden San Antonio Riverwalk
103 9th Street
San Antonio, TX  78215

Now it's your turn.  What are you thinking out loud about today?  Link up and share.

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  1. Thanks for sharing this truly inspiring story. Love it and it was something that was needed. Hope you have a wonderful Thursday.

  2. I love that all through this story he is so focused on what everyone else is doing that he doesn't even seem to realize he's a huge helper too!

  3. As a retired RN, and a past New Yorker, this story brought tears to my eyes as I know how hard ICU nurses work and how unselfish they are, and how much they appreciate support like Dan gave them all. New York was hit so hard with COVID and these nurses were so needed. They are angels for helping the staffs of many overwhelmed hospitals. I'm so thankful for them all!

  4. This was such a great piece. I loved all the love contained in these words. I have copied down the address, and I will definitely be sending a few notes. Will you keep us posted on any new address?? I go back into the classroom with kids in late August, and will definitely be asking my students to write a few as well!

  5. Thank you for sharing this story. I grew up in the Bronx, one of the terribly impacted areas of New York City, and I have family in Brooklyn and Queens. One of my coworker's daughters works in a neonatal ward in the Bronx; in fact, last night one of her patients was a possible COVID-positive baby. She shared (a little) some of her experiences during March and April. It is unimaginable. The nurse I know through her mother, and all the medical people and first responders were true angels. Alana

  6. This is so awesome. HArd to type for the tears...