Trial by Fire

By Charles McKenzie, November 24, 2020
Angela Grumley ’17 spent her first day on the COVID ward experiencing the spectrum of life and death.

During the first few days of a new job, employees often spend time filling out paperwork, setting up accounts, touring the work site, and getting to know colleagues in a steady progression of settling in. But for nursing student Angela Grumley ’17, her worst few hours on the job in a COVID-19 ward were her first two hours — and they were also two of her most exciting. 

Grumley, who received a public health degree from IC, was set to graduate from Columbia School of Nursing in August and then stay for her doctorate of nursing practice. But when the university sent students home, shifting to online classes because of the pandemic, she and her fellow nursing students felt they had skills to contribute. Columbia and New York-Presbyterian Hospital agreed and offered them eight-week contracts during the peak of New York City’s COVID-19 crisis. 

nurse closeup wearing a mask

Angela Grumley ’17 left Massachusetts to return to New York City to work as a nurse technician. 

Things escalated so quickly and all these health care professionals were really suffering and short staffed,” said Grumley, who worked as a nursing assistant from age 16. “Especially as a person with experience, I felt I should go.” 

Leaving her husband back home in Massachusetts, Grumley went to New York City to work as a nurse technician. She took vital signs and helped patients get comfortable — and get to the bathroom. 

“There were a lot of moments when I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m right here. What am I doing here?’ There was always a bit of fear every time I went into a room initially, but then I’d just kind of settle into a routine,” she said.

Although she didn’t know there was an intubation going on, Grumley had been about 20 feet from a room, asking a colleague where the supply room was. 

“And then somebody looked down the hallway and noticed that I was there, and I was instructed to go all the way to the [other] end of the hall,” she said. “Everyone was just being really careful and making sure that no one had exposure, or at least that it was minimized as much as possible.” 

About an hour later, Grumley was asked to care for a patient who had passed away. Typically, nurses clean and wrap the bodies and handle other procedures to get them ready for transport to the morgue. 

“This was my first time seeing that patient, but I was given a kind of backstory, and I still take the same level of care with the patient as I would if they were still alive, using a very gentle touch,” she said. “I had done postmortem care before, but I wasn’t used to so many patients declining so quickly. But when someone passes when visitors aren’t allowed, it’s even more heart-wrenching.”

“To see someone who did come out the other side of it, that was definitely one of the highlights.” 

Angela Grumley ’17

Like an electrocardiogram reading, the emotional ups and downs of her first two hours took another turn soon after. 

“That same day, I took care of somebody who had made it through the ICU and made it through intubation. I was able to get them up for the first time since they had been put under.”

Although the trip was just to a bedside commode, it was a momentous but exhausting one for the patient. 

“That was a really impactful moment because of everything else I had just been through with the intubation and someone passing. But then, to see someone who did come out the other side of it, that was definitely one of the highlights.”

In just two hours, Grumley experienced an entire cycle of life on a COVID-19 ward. Since her first day, things have slowed, which she describes as a huge positive with a downside.

“I’m thrilled that social distancing seems to be working, and we have fewer patients. That was always the ultimate goal. But I’m not the type of person who likes to sit still. I’d like to be out helping people and taking care of people where there’s the greatest need.”

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