Chattanooga nurses go to New York City to help on the frontlines of COVID-19 fight

Photo courtesy of Richard Boyd / Richard and Autumn Boyd stand in New York City after traveling from Chattanooga to be part of the COVID-19 response.

With New York City in the center of the national conversation about the coronavirus - the state leading the country in confirmed cases and deaths - Richard and Autumn Boyd made the 800-mile journey north from Chattanooga to be on the front lines.

The two met while attending Southern Adventist University to become registered nurses and got married in June 2019. Autumn worked in the intensive care unit at Erlanger East Hospital, while Richard worked in the cardiovascular ICU at Erlanger's downtown campus.

The two nurses made the decision last month to step away from Erlanger. The couple had been interested in traveling as nurses for some time, Richard said. As the impact of COVID-19 became clear, they narrowed their focus on New York City.

"When this came up, we were just like, we have to go and help," Richard said. "It's the greatest opportunity for us to be part of something so significant."

The Boyds are entering the third week of a 13-week rotation at the Lower Manhattan campus of the NewYork-Presbyterian hospital system. For four days a week, from Thursday to Sunday, they work 12-hour night shifts in the hospital's ICU where COVID-19 patients are treated.

Seeing up close the impacts of the virus - which as of Wednesday has infected nearly 1.2 million Americans and killed at least 65,000 - is daunting, Richard said.

"You hear things coming in from different folks, from doctors or nurses about their experiences, but it didn't prepare us completely for how sick these people are," the 33-year-old said.

(READ MORE: What it's like to be a Chattanooga family doctor on the front line of COVID-19 fight)

Patients with the coronavirus are coming into the hospital and experiencing major organ failure or acute respiratory distress and dying within one to two days, Richard said. Patients are often scared and unfamiliar with the ICU setting. Because of concerns about spreading the virus, visitors are not allowed in, leaving medical staff to provide end-of-life comfort to those who do not recover.

"That takes a toll on the patient, and it's very difficult on the family because they can't come up to the ICU to even say goodbye," Richard said.

The couple was nervous about coming to New York City, as much as they felt drawn to help those most in need, he said. The long days and being continually confronted by how the deadly virus is changing lives takes a toll on health care workers. There is the stress of the new routine of wearing full personal protective equipment and knowing that caring for someone with COVID-19 puts health care workers at risk.

"There's a lot of fatigue any time you're working in an ICU or critical care environment," he said.

But the couple's time in New York City has not been without uplifting moments. Fire trucks from a nearby station drive to the hospital campus every night for a lights and siren show at 7 p.m., part of a new citywide tradition of showing support for front-line workers each evening.

"When you're going into your third or fourth shift and you've had a rough week and you're walking into the hospital and you see all this support from the community, it definitely helps you out," Richard said.

Contact Wyatt Massey at or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.