Oklahoma Christian University nurse serves COVID-19 patients in New York City
'It’s a nightmare. It’s a total nightmare.” Managing more than…
As Kym Langford clocked out of her shift, she couldn’t help but wonder about one man: Would he still be there when she returned for her next shift?
He was 35. A father. A husband. A patient with COVID-19.
“He needed a ventilator, or he was going to die,” Langford said. “But we didn’t have any at the time.”
Roughly 1,500 miles from her Oklahoma home, Langford cared for dozens of patients on the front lines of New York City’s battle against the coronavirus.
Some of their faces — including that of the kind man with the uncertain fate — stick with her. (He survived.)
“I took care of a ton of patients, and I saw a lot of people die,” the 42-year-old mother of three said. “Most were elderly patients who had underlying conditions, but there were also several that were young.”
For six and a half weeks, Langford worked long, agonizing shifts at the Harlem Hospital, battling not only the virus but also the lack of adequate medical supplies.
“The first three weeks, we were really in that climbing phase,” said Langford, normally a lab coordinator at Oklahoma Christian University’s school of nursing and a nurse at a nearby hospital. “They use that terminology, ‘We don’t want hospitals to become overwhelmed,’ and that was happening.”
Langford had signed on with an agency that works with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Within 24 hours of contacting the agency, she was on a plane headed to New York City.
“I thought, ‘Well, this is a really cool opportunity to go and serve,’” she said. “So it was really spontaneous, but that’s my personality.”
Said her husband, Ben, a Bible professor at Oklahoma Christian University and a minister for the Springs Church of Christ in Edmond, Okla.: “She just said, ‘I think I could do this. I think I’m gifted for this.’”
The decision made him a little anxious.
“But I thought she was right,” he said. “When we dropped her off at the airport and said goodbye, I had a moment of thinking, ‘What are we doing?’”
His anxiety quickly dissipated because he knew her training, her experience and her mentality were a good fit for serving in this way.
For the first 12 days straight she worked 12-hour shifts, overnight, serving between 10 and 13 patients each shift at the Harlem Hospital. That’s about three times the patient load to which she was accustomed.
Most rooms held four patients, with no barriers between them. The floor Langford spent several nights on had previously been closed. It was forced back open as the hospital needed more rooms for those suffering with the virus.
As if things weren’t complicated enough, the hospital had few nursing aides and little support staff.
Langford found herself taking out the trash and cleaning bathrooms with Clorox wipes.
The hospital’s regular staff was getting sick. Some even died. There were nights when all of the nurses on a floor were from other states, just like Langford.
“The blind leading the blind,” she said. “We didn’t know the hospital or the phone numbers of the doctors. It was really, really hard.”
Earlier in their marriage, the Langfords had spent six years as missionaries in Jinja, Uganda. Kym’s time there inspired her to go to nursing school when they returned to the U.S.
Her Uganda experience, she said, may even have helped her handle the stress of working without basic resources in New York.
“This is a respiratory disease, and I had no idea how my patients were doing, most of the time, when it came to their breathing.”
Such a scene, especially at a U.S. hospital, was shocking to see.
“I’m talking about something as simple as those little oxygen sensors you put on your finger, and you can watch and see how someone’s oxygen level is,” Langford said. “We did not have those. … This is a respiratory disease, and I had no idea how my patients were doing, most of the time, when it came to their breathing.”
Communication with the patients’ families also was limited. The hospital didn’t have staff to answer the phones on each floor. Most rooms didn’t have private phones. Many patients had lost their phones getting to the hospital.
“Families were desperate to find out what’s going on,” she said.
Some patients were unsure if they would ever see their families again. She prayed with those who were especially anxious and willing. One night she made it a point to allow each of her patients to use her phone to send a text message or make a quick call to a loved one.
“You’re in a crisis,” she said, “and these family members needed to know what was going on and if their loved one was doing OK.”
It was exhausting. And the fear of getting the virus herself was real.
“You know there’s the risk of getting sick,” she said, “and so I was just, I thought, ‘I don’t want my time here to come to an end,’ and I also didn’t want to end up in a hospital in New York City.”
Knowing her family was safe back home helped her to stay focused. She was diligent about taking care of herself, sleeping as much as she could, taking supplements, drinking a lot of water and eating healthy.
Langford worked all but a few nights. But after her first 12-day stretch, she and a couple of other nurses were given a night off. They stayed up so they wouldn’t mess up their sleep schedule. They walked around the city for hours. The typically bustling metropolis was eerily silent, empty almost.
They saw a few homeless people. A bunch of police.
“It was so crazy,” Langford said.
During her last three weeks, more nurses arrived. That helped reduce the stress. During those weeks, the measures New York City had implemented in hopes of flattening the curve also seemed to be reducing, slowly, the number of patients coming into the hospital.
In early May, she was released to go home. Before returning she was tested for the virus and the antibodies. She tested negative for COVID-19, which meant she could go home without needing to quarantine from her family. She was, however, positive for the antibodies, which means she had been infected at some point.
Even with the antibodies, she said she will keep wearing a mask and social-distancing herself from others. After seeing firsthand the damage the virus can cause, she wants to do what she can to protect her family and others.
Langford knows of some who have questioned the reality of the virus, despite knowing her.
“There are a lot of people out there that think it’s not real,” she said.
“It’s real, and it was really, really horrific.”
After working through a peak, she said that questioning “blows her mind.”
“It’s real, and it was really, really horrific,” she said.
The prayers of so many of her Christian brothers and sisters, Langford believes, helped her complete her work without becoming ill.
Thanks to media coverage back home and an earlier article in The Christian Chronicle, many believers around the world prayed for her.
“There were people praying for my wife that didn’t know my wife,” Ben said, “and I just thank everyone for doing that.”
As unbelievable as Langford’s experience turned out to be, she said there’s no doubt that she would do it all over again.
“I wouldn’t hesitate. I do feel like I made a big difference,” she said. “I do feel like all of these nurses coming in from all over the United States helped a ton and that there’s a lot less death in these hospitals because we were there.”
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