LeeAnn Pinchock is an AFS Returnee who spent her senior year in a tiny town near Cologne, Germany. Ann now lives in a small rural town twenty miles from Flint, Michigan. Her near and extended family have deep ties to the international exchange world—her husband was a Rotary participant to Spain and her mother-in-law has been a dedicated AFS Volunteer and Host Mother for over twenty years and currently works in Organizational Development for AFS-USA. Ann and her husband, who have two children, share more in common: they are both nursing professionals. The difference is that LeeAnn, already accustomed to working with severely ill patients at Hurley Medical Center, a public inner-city hospital in Flint, MI, is now treating COVID-19 patients only.

Ann, can you please describe how your job changed after the COVID-19 pandemic reached Michigan?

I am a progressive care nurse, something in between a medical-surgical, regular floor and an intensive care unit (ICU) nurse, working mostly in cardiac care and rehabilitation. I have been working for Hurley Medical Center for one year. Two months ago, things began changing. The news reports were coming out and the hospital started to prepare. Patients stopped coming in and the ER died off. It was the calm before the storm, we knew something was really going to hit. About a month ago, we became a COVID-19 ICU. Since then, we’ve been dealing with those patients exclusively, but we had them beforehand. There just wasn’t a designated unit for them.

What kind of patients do you see coming through the hospital doors?

Well, we see very sick patients. The sickest of the sick patients, who usually need to be connected to a ventilator. Most of them are sedated and can’t talk. The cardiac ICU and the PCU (Progressive Care Unit), on the entire fourth floor have become a COVID unit. The other units in the hospital are also taking care of COVID patients here and there.

The general population has changed, we are seeing many more African American men. This population has been tragically affected. And if you think of what they have been going through with the lead issue in the drinking water and the financial collapse of the city, to see the community being hit again, it’s heartbreaking. The patients that come through our doors are mostly homeless, people without health insurance, people with substance abuse issues, mostly people who live below the poverty line—and this is the majority of Flint’s population.

What type of equipment are you provided with and required to wear?

There are “clean” floors and there are “dirty” floors. In COVID “dirty” floors, no one is allowed to go on unless you work on that floor. You must be completely bound up while you’re on that floor. The hospital now assigns hospital scrubs, instead of a set of scrubs that you would wear from home, as well as isolation gowns. The hospital also equipped us with paper masks and N95 for five uses, but a lot of us have bought online our own P100 that filters much better, it looks like a gas mask.

How would you describe a typical day on your COVID-19 hospital floor?

It’s different than it used to be. It was a very loud and chaotic floor, we had a different patient population, they were alert and making their needs heard—it was fun, but it was chaos! Everybody was always running, now it’s very step by step, methodical work. It’s very calm and quiet and everyone is talking in whispers. The lights are always off because we don’t want mental stimulation for the patients since it’s very hard to keep them sedated. Now you arrive and you get bound up and you’re bound up for the whole day. You really don’t take a proper break during your 12-hour shift, because you have to take everything off, so we usually just take time to eat our lunch.

We used to see a lot more patients. Now we have less patients that we take care of one on one, because they’re more critical. These days I take care of two patients, while I used to tend to four to five. The reason is that they are on IV medications that you have to monitor much more closely. We always say that COVID affects nice people. They are all so thankful. My favorite thing is to get an iPad and bring families together on video. They are completely alone in the hospital.

How do you prepare yourself, emotionally and mentally, for each day at work?

We just know we have to do it; someone has to do it. We were assigned to this new role, our floor became a COVID-19 floor so that was it, but a lot of people did decide to leave. The hospital is offering free online counseling to people that need it. But we are nurses, we are strong! [laughing]

Have the skills and capacities that you developed while living abroad been helpful to you in your daily work life, and in these extraordinary circumstances?

Absolutely. Living in a new culture really lets you see things from someone else’s perspective. It helps you put yourself in their shoes and to think before you judge someone. To understand what we’re going through, what management is going through, what the patients are going through. I think a big part of cultural exchange is to consider the motivations of others. Some colleagues have sent their kids away, so you have to understand the stress that they’re all going through every day.

How is the situation today, compared to when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic (March 11)?

At that time, we had at least six COVID-19 units at the hospital. Today, two units have closed so we can see that social distancing works and people are getting off ventilators!

We thank and applaud LeeAnn Pinchock for her courage and the critical service she offers to her local community in Flint. We wish her and her family health and safety.