Posted July 1, 2020
When a Disney cruise with her family was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ana Wilkinson decided to go on a much different trip, one that would take her 3,000 miles away to New York City at the height of the crisis. For six straight weeks of 14-hour days, she volunteered as an emergency room nurse at Harlem Hospital, leaving behind her husband, an Orange County firefighter/paramedic, and their young sons, six and eight years old. “You go,” her husband Randy told her. “I got the kids. Just go. You’ll regret it if you don’t.” Wilkinson, an ER nurse at UC San Diego Medical Center in Hillcrest and La Jolla, had previously volunteered for medical missions in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. “He knew how much I loved aid work,” she explains. So, with her husband’s blessing, Wilkinson was on a plane to New York.
There, she joined thousands of volunteer medical personnel organized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to staff hospitals overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases at the epicenter of the pandemic. Assigned to Harlem Hospital, she treated scores of coronavirus patients as well as victims of stabbings, gunshot wounds, and drug overdoses. “The first two weeks you’re basically in survival mode,” she recalls. “We were in a war zone. People were dying left and right. Ambulances kept driving up, bringing in new patients.” On one shift alone, she treated 15 patients. Eight of them died.
“My motto was ‘nobody dies alone,’” says Wilkinson, who noticed that many patients came in from skilled nursing facilities without family. So, she kept tabs on patients who were transferred from the emergency room to the intensive care unit. She would visit them on her lunch hour, sitting by their bedsides, holding their hands, and arranging FaceTime calls with loved ones. In one such case, Wilkinson encouraged an elderly patient to call his daughter. “I would want to talk to you,” she told him. The man made the call. Father and daughter talked and laughed together for a long time. “It was perfect,” says Wilkinson. After the call, the daughter thanked her.
Wilkinson brought much-needed cheer to her patients in other ways, too. She danced. “No one wants to be in the hospital,” she says. “It’s kind of gloomy. So put on some music and jam!”
Wilkinson’s final patient at Harlem Hospital was 66-year-old Ramon Espinal, the father of a 26-year-old first responder. When admitted, Espinal had shortness of breath and fever, symptoms associated with COVID-19. Wilkinson visited Espinal throughout his time in the intensive care unit to talk, squeeze his hand, and hold on to him “as tight as I could.” She also shared progress reports with Espinal’s son Raymond, who was at his father’s bedside when he died. Afterward, son and nurse sat together and cried. The next day, Wilkinson was invited to the Espinals’ home for breakfast, where they shared Ramon’s favorite meal, mangú, a dish made of smashed plantains. “It was closure for both his family and me,” says Wilkinson.
When contacted in New York in early June for this story, Raymond was dealing with the riots that wracked the city and country triggered by the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, but he still took time to express his family’s gratitude for Wilkinson’s extraordinary care. “She will pass through your life for a minute and will impact it for eternity,” he wrote. “My family and I believe Ana is an angel that was sent to us during these hard times. The connection she made with my father is unbreakable and I’m glad she was there for him during his last moment. Ana will always hold a special place in our hearts. She will always be family to us.”
“It truly was an honor working with Ana Wilkinson,” says Fendia Osirus, a staff nurse who worked with Wilkinson at Harlem Hospital. “She brings out the best in people, even in overwhelming circumstances. I can personally say Ana makes me want to be a better nurse each day. She is a constant reminder of the quote from [the late religious leader] Lorenzo Snow: ‘Be better today than you were yesterday and be better tomorrow than you are today.’”
Now home with her family and back to work at UC San Diego Medical Center, Wilkinson has had time to reflect on her intense time in New York. “I felt this experience has taught me to be more compassionate, and more competent in my nursing,” she says. “It’s a sink-or-swim mentality in a pandemic. I learned how to swim quickly.” She also learned “to count your blessings,” especially family, whom “we tend to take for granted.”
As if she hadn’t given enough, Wilkinson left a parting gift for her new family at Harlem Hospital. She donated three portable vital signs monitors that she paid for herself.
On her last day at the hospital, she appeared live on a local television station, surrounded by staff. They all clapped and cheered and laughed. And, led by Wilkinson, they danced. Andrea Naversen