When Chase Brooks’ hours were cut at St. Mary’s Hospital during to the COVID-19 pandemic, he wasn't going to settle for downtime.
Instead, the 2012 Jefferson High School graduate and registered nurse signed up for crisis-care work in the Detroit area, where he spent six weeks on the front lines in one of the country’s most heavily-stricken COVID-19 spots before returning in mid-May.
“It’s invaluable,” the 25-year-old said of his experience. “It’s something that I’m going to be able to take with me anywhere.”
Brooks took on this assignment for both financial reasons and out of personal conviction.
He’d worked two years as a nurse when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which reduced his hours in the post anesthesia care unit at St. Mary’s in Athens as elective surgeries were postponed. So, he needed the work.
But Brooks wanted to help, too. So, he began seeking out hospitals needing crisis assistance.
“Because I always thought that would be cool to do,” Brooks said.
In what amounted to a lateral move, Brooks was able to land a job within his company’s own system in a hospital in Livonia, a large suburb of Detroit.
“When they offered that, I was like, ‘Heck, yeah, I want to go help out with that,’” Brooks said. “It helps me out and I get to help them out.”
Brooks spent his first two weeks in an overcrowded 60-bed emergency room, 50 beds of which were COVID-19 patients.
“It seemed like we always had a line of ambulances waiting out the door,” Brooks said, “about 10 or more waiting on a room in the ER.”
“And that was just during the day,” Brooks added, “and that was for literally 12 hours straight.”
He then transferred to the hospital’s less-hectic ICU unit for four weeks where he worked with two patients at a time, the majority of which were on ventilators.
Brooks had done ICU-level care before “and I have never taken care of people to that caliber until I went up there," he said. The level of sickness was an eye-opening experience for the young nurse.
“It was all new to me in a way,” Brooks said, “and it was very sad to see.”
Brooks said he had to a develop certain numbness to what he was witnessing in the ICU.
“I go there. I do my job. I get in. I get out. And then at home is kind of where it hits,” Brook said. “There were a couple days in the ICU when I got back to the hotel and I was highly contemplating calling my boss and asking to come home.”
And his initial work in the overcrowded ER had him doing similar soul-searching.
“The ER, every day was like that,” Brook said. “Every day, I regretted going up there. I was either like, ‘I’m coming home or I’m transferring.”
But Brooks, who spent four weeks working in the ICU after securing a transfer, persevered.
Brooks said he wished he could share inspirational stories of patient care in the ICU unit, but he can’t. COVID-19 patients on those ventilators “didn’t come off (of it), honestly. They die on it.”
During his experience’ in the ICU, Brooks often took a liaison role to families who couldn’t enter the facility to due to COVID-19 restrictions, giving them detailed updates and assurance that all care possible was being given.
“It seemed that a lot of those families appreciated that,” Brooks said.
The ER was a somewhat different experience where people were angry, hurting and declining quickly.
“It’s one of those things where you’ve got to become numb to it and put on your professional face," Brooks said.
Naturally, Brooks’ own risk of contracting COVID-19 was heightened during his experience in the Detroit area, especially during his stint in the hectic ER. He recalls one particularly close call when a patient with dementia not wearing a mask coughed in his face. She tested COVID-19 positive.
“It went through my head right then, ‘That just got me,’” Brooks said.
Fortunately for Brooks, he tested negative for COVID-19.
Brooks has been home now for nearly a month. Asked for his opinion of where the country stands in the COVID-19 crisis, Brooks believes the nation is making “good baby-steps progress.”
"I've never been a person that's like, 'We've got to make this huge jump in a short amount of time,'" Brooks said. "I want to make baby steps because smaller goals lead to bigger goals."
Meanwhile, he’s proud of his experience in the Detroit area.
“I think it was good that I put myself in a position where I wasn’t exactly comfortable, and I made it through,” Brooks said. “I learned a lot. I saw a lot. I can 100 percent say it made me a better critical-care nurse.”
And Brooks’ message to others given a similar opportunity:
“Go join it,” he said. “It’s 100 percent worth it.”