For Leslie Gettling, May 13, 2019 marks the start of her current workday routine.
It begins with her rolling out of bed at 5 a.m. and running out the front door by 6:15 a.m. — after saying goodbye to her husband, Jason, and their 2-year-old daughter, Jayell, if they’re awake — leaving her enough time to grab a quick cup of coffee during her relatively stress-free ride from Southampton to Riverhead.
But for nearly three months, there have been no coffee stops. There have been no easy mornings or relaxing drives. Instead, on her way to Peconic Bay Medical Center — where she celebrated her one-year anniversary as an environmental services housekeeper on Wednesday, against the backdrop of the COVID-19 outbreak — Ms. Gettling’s thoughts are dominated by worry.
“What will my day look like today?” the 27-year-old said she wonders. “How many patients are we going to have? How crazy is it gonna be, trying to clean these rooms and get them ready for the next wave of patients?”
Then, they escalate.
“What if I am accidentally exposed?” she thinks to herself. “What if I come home and …?”
Her anxiety spiral abruptly stops. She pulls into the parking lot at 6:45 a.m., puts on her game face and walks into the hospital, met by the comfort only her mother, Ingrid Castillo — the head housekeeper of the emergency department — can provide.
There, they support each other, protect one another and face the days together — working alongside the doctors, nurses and fellow hospital staff as they weather the pandemic in a vital, yet less recognized, way.
“Aside from doing our job, we have to also remember that these patients are real people with feelings, and they’re going through this,” Ms. Gettling said. “So we also have to keep in mind that when we are cleaning their rooms, or taking their garbage out, we try to at least keep some type of intimacy with the patients and make sure that they know that everything is going to be okay.”
As of Monday, Suffolk County had seen 35,275 coronavirus cases, with nearly 1,300 deaths that will forever leave an impact on essential frontline workers, including Ms. Gettling and Ms. Castillo. In the earliest days of the virus, neither imagined what they would be facing.
“There was a lot of fear in the beginning because we didn’t really know what to expect. But of course, things needed to be done,” Ms. Gettling said. “We took a lot of precaution and made sure that people were following the rules they were supposed to follow. Once it started really becoming a big issue, we went from seeing a couple rooms that were COVID to seeing the whole unit that was COVID, and it was like something very …”
She trailed off, searching for the words. “Like, you’d walk into the unit and you would be speechless that, so rapidly, it became something that was everywhere.”
While there is rarely a slow day in the emergency department, now it was a never-ending turnover, pushing environmental services to its limits as they rushed to clean every vacant room while wearing personal protective equipment, or PPE, and bringing in every available worker, including Ms. Gettling, who is considered a “float.”
“From the beginning, I was trying to protect her,” explained her mother, who was hesitant to expose her to the emergency department. “I was there for her, and she was there for me. She’s just great, a great daughter. She’s a good girl.”
Her voice cracked as she fought back tears. “She’s a good girl,” she continued. “She’s been there for me, and I try to be there for her, but she always trying to do more for me.”
Since the pandemic ramped up, environmental services workers are borderline indistinguishable from the rest of the staff, trading their traditional uniforms for scrubs, and wearing a surgical mask and head covering at all times. To clean a patient’s room, they must enter wearing an N95 mask underneath the surgical mask, as well as goggles, PPE, a fiber net on top of the head covering, and two pairs of gloves.
After months of practice, suiting up takes no longer than three minutes, Ms. Gettling said.
“If we know we have to clean a room, we’ll swing by the nurse station, grab our stuff and then head to the room,” she said. “And in front of the room, we’ll try to get ready as quickly as possible so we can go in and get it done. We have to be tough and stay positive, and still be gentle and sensitive with these patients that are actually going through this stuff. Because there’s no visitors allowed, we’re really the only contact with them.”
The virus has tested the team’s compassion, speed and attention to detail. One mistake could lead to devastating consequences.
“We had to be like perfectionists, just to make sure that not only were we protecting ourselves, but protecting our co-workers and protecting future patients that were going to be coming into these rooms,” Ms. Gettling said. “It became a little overwhelming — not just physically, but emotionally. Unfortunately, there’s been death, and for you to be in a place where you see everybody trying to help somebody who has come in severely ill, even though the doctors try to do the best they can, sometimes it’s too late.
She sighed to herself. “I’ve had to see death. I’ve had to see a patient come in and … and not make it.”
On the darkest days, comforting one another with a hug or even a smile is no longer an option for the hospital staff, Ms. Castillo said, as they are barred by social distancing mandates and hidden behind masks.
“In March, after the people we heard that they passed away, [Leslie] starting crying, praying, praying, and at the same time I was praying for the doctors, the nurses, for us and for them, for the patients,” she said. “It’s very hard. I hope, one day, that it all works out. Now, it went down a lot. It’s not as much as it was in March. March was every day, every day, every day, in and out of the rooms, in and out. Every day, they were just waiting for rooms. Now it’s getting better, but at the same time, I have the feeling that this is not gonna have an end. It’s not gonna end.”
Ms. Gettling finds herself leaning on her faith and holding onto her memories of the better days at the hospital, the ones that give her hope. “I remember the last time they brought somebody in,” she said. “I was praying and I was praying, and I was asking for a miracle. The person came in and they were not breathing, but they were able to get a pulse and she did a full recovery. So that was a great moment, a great sign that everything was starting to get better.”
At the end of every shift, she changes out of her scrubs and leaves them at the hospital for disinfecting, careful not to allow them to touch her clothes. She hops back in her car and heads home, where her husband will be preparing for his night shift at the hospital — also in environmental services — and she will take over childcare.
“It’s not just, ‘Am I gonna come home and infect my family?’ But it’s, we have to be careful because we’re coming home to our 2-year-old daughter,” she said. “Most families are in quarantine, so they see each other every day, but we don’t have the luxury of being quarantined. When we do get that time together, we just appreciate it that much more.”
She has come to appreciate her time with her mother that much more, too, she said.
“You know, it’s … it’s a comfort, I’m not gonna lie, that I have my mom there with me,” she said. “She really tries to protect me as much as she can, and I have to tell her, ‘Mom, this is my job. I have the same job as you, and I have to do what I have to do. Everything’s gonna be okay.’ But of course, she’s a mom, so she’s gonna try and take everything on herself.
“I can’t even imagine what my life would be, working at hospital during this time if I didn’t have her there with me,” she continued. “I think that it would be really hard. I’m very lucky.”
As published in the Southampton Press