March 7, 2022 — The COVID pandemic shone a light on the state’s nursing and healthcare heroes, but it also highlighted the consequences of decades of austerity budgets and reduced staffing in the industry. During the October 2021 PEF Convention in Niagara Falls, members at SUNY Upstate, SUNY Downstate and SUNY Stony Brook sat down with PEF to discuss how the pandemic and short staffing impact their jobs, what their jobs mean to their communities and why they chose to do what they do. 

How does COVID and short staffing impact your work? 

“I’m fairly new to thinking about this in terms of what the state can do for us instead of what I can be doing for my state. The answer to that, I hear people thanking us, which is fantastic. We’ve gotten some movement passed, we’re getting double and a half overtime, which is fantastic. Money only goes so far though, for us. Really what we need is more hands. We need more hands to do the work that we’ve been doing in the past year and a half. There was a push for more staff and then it kind of fell by the wayside. It’s difficult to do the job taking care of people in the worst period of their entire lives when you don’t have enough people watching your back, being able to cover for you when you’re in with a very sick patient and there is another patient equally as sick next door who just starts to crash when you’re in the middle of a very critical scenario. More staff, for me, that would be the best-case scenario at this moment in time because we’re burnt out. No qualms in saying that: we’re burnt out.” 

Samuel Pehling, ICU nurse, SUNY Stony Brook 

“During COVID, although we are a student-based health center, we also became a testing site for staff that still needed to come on site. We actually spoke to a local lab, and we became the testers and submitted it to that actual lab. It was a lot of teamwork, a lot of recalibrations, shifting, really getting used to embracing change because the routine was not the same anymore. We were certainly being creative to maintain the safety of the campus community and the community outside. 

Retention has been an issue, not only due to the pandemic; we can’t compete with the private sector. We do our best to maintain work as a team. We’re hustling. With college nursing, it really is a primary care for the students. We have medical doctors, we have an OB/GYN on site, we have medications that students can just come in and if they are prescribed it, they get it right then and there. Nurses also go out and do programming for sexual violence awareness, suicide awareness; we cover and teach on a lot of different topics that college students can face. We’re constantly educating.” 

Adele Gutierrez, college health nurse, SUNY College at Westbury 

“It was very, very challenging for the frontline workers, nurses to be at the bedside, every morning, every day. The number of patients that were coming into the hospital, especially into the ICU, was overwhelming our usual capacity of 1 to 2 nurse ratio in the ICU. Each day I come to work, I’m crying and I have no break and I have to take care of these patients that the outcome at the end of my day was sad. I see these patients dying. They come in; they’re doing very well. In the next few hours to the next day, they are not talking and transitioned to the other world. I could not believe my eyes, being an ICU nurse for over 13 years, but wrapping bodies which come in every day, talking to me and in the next 24 hours they are no more talking to me. It was very stressful.” 

Diana Potakey, nurse, SUNY Downstate 

“We’re burnt out. I feel there are days when I go to work and I feel like I’m wearing a hat that has different titles and I just have to turn that hat every day; I’m a housekeeper, I’m a cleaner, I’m a caregiver, I’m a patient advocate. It’s a problem, it’s a problem everywhere. This double time and a half is not an incentive for me; I go to work and I can’t wait to go home these days. That wasn’t always the case as a nurse. We love our job, we love to go to work, I love to take care of my patients, I want them to get the best care possible – but at the end of the day, we’re so exhausted and I only work eight-hour shifts, I don’t work the 12-hour shifts. You don’t get out of work on time, and you can’t just walk off the floor if you don’t have relief. That’s becoming a problem.” 

Debra Delgiorno, nurse, SUNY Stony Brook 

“On my unit, usually the staffing was very, very bad. As everyone knows, it wasn’t only us, it was everywhere. My unit consists of nine ICU beds; during the pandemic sometimes, we only have two nurses to work with nine patients. When I say nine patients, nine intubated, critically ill patients on drips and everything.” 

Georgette Persona, nurse, SUNY Downstate 

“In the beginning of the pandemic, it was like a war zone. It was nothing I’d ever seen in my 19 years I was there. It was really crazy. Patients were super sick. They weren’t like normal ICU patients where we could just give them a little bit of medication, they were eating through their sedation – the COVID did some weird stuff to them. It took a lot of pain medication, a lot of sedation to keep them sedated so they would be OK on a ventilator. They were super sick. Sometimes they would have gastrointestinal bleeds, sometimes they were throwing clots. It was just a crazy virus. 

Barbara Coniglio, nurse, SUNY Stony Brook 

“Some units were devastated and there was nobody there to fill in because we are already working short. That is a big concern right now. I’m affected as well in my neonatal intensive care unit, people just left New York. They up and left. We had a lot of young girls, they said, ‘You know forget this, I’ll be a travel nurse and go to a state where this isn’t a mandate right now.’ Now you’re picking up more work than is reasonable and who are you hurting, you’re hurting the poor patients in the bed or the poor babies in the neonatal intensive care unit.  

Nora Higgins, nurse, SUNY Stony Brook 

“Without funding, we lack the resources for education for nurses. We really need that; we need to have more education. We have a younger nursing population that’s coming in and we the seasoned nurses are not saying they aren’t valued, but I think we are more oriented to the traditional nursing aspect of it, so funding would really help to provide the additional resources that we need in terms of education for nurses so that they can understand and tap into what it really means to be a resourceful nurse.” 

Joan Rosegreen, ER nurse, SUNY Downstate 

“We’ve been short staffed for years. Years, and years, and years and the pandemic has just sort of manifested that. People have left nursing all together. What we’re finding now, what I’m seeing every day, is we still try to take care of the patients the best that we can, but it’s really limited. I’ve been nursing for a little over 13 ½ years on the same unit. I’m a surgical trauma critical care nurse and of the most experienced people I think I can count on both my hands who is actually there. We have all these new people in and they just continue to cycle and cycle and cycle. They leave the SUNY system, specifically SUNY Stony Brook, and I’m sure SUNY Downstate and Upstate, because our salaries aren’t competitive anymore.  

The nursing shortage is a real thing and there are recruiters across the country who will call our unit, find out who we are on social media and then they send us messages and offer us, frankly, significant financial incentives to leave our current job to go work for them. So, again, like I said, I work in the sickest ICU in Suffolk County, people know what our skillset is supposed to be so we receive tremendous offers to go work for institutions across the country and provide, frankly, education and care to Americans across the country.” 

Amy Pacholk, nurse, SUNY Stony Brook 

“During the pandemic it was very difficult. I saw a lot of patients come in very sick, could hardly breath. It was very, very difficult trying to comfort or explain to the family member without them being too alarmed about how the patient was doing. All COVID patients were coming to our facility. One thing that I remember was a patient came in with COVID and her cellphone was dead. It wasn’t charged, so when she came up, she was on bi-pap and we were going to intubate her. Just before it was known that she was going to go on a mechanical ventilator, she let me know her cellphone was dead and her children didn’t know she was there. She was telling me that while she was on the bi-pap, trying to convey that to me. She de-sated and we intubated her and she didn’t make it. We had to call her family with whatever contact information we had. 

We didn’t have enough nurses, we didn’t have enough staff, we didn’t have enough PPE, it was just very difficult. We were fighting for everything. I want to say that the union, President Spence, made sure that he listened to whatever complaints we had during that time and he came and he distributed PPE, masks and whatever else he could get his hands on. Which let us know that he was in there with us, fighting with us, and we were being heard. Somebody was hearing us.” 

Cynthia Walker, nurse, SUNY Downstate 

“We lack supplies; it’s crazy that I could walk into a supermarket and there will be masks on the counter, but for us, we literally have to hunt masks down, we have to hunt down gowns some days, because everything is under lock and key. If the person with the key isn’t there, how do you get your supplies?” 

Karey Gosevski, nurse, SUNY Stony Brook 

Why do we need the state to Fund Our Future? 

“My patients are safest at Stony Brook. I didn’t realize how different things should actually be run until I went to Stony Brook. If I had an emergency situation at a community hospital and I need help, I might get two people in that room to help me. At Stony Brook, if I call for help, I have 30 people in my room. Right there, that says it all.” 

Debra Delgiorno, nurse, SUNY Stony Brook 

“If New York state doesn’t fund or fill these positions, then we are going to have to try running operating rooms with the number of nurses that we have and fewer patients are going to be able to get the surgeries that they need because we cannot support safe surgeries with the surgeons and nursing staff that we are currently under.” 

Michael Doyle, OR nurse, SUNY Stony Brook 

“We provide service for high prescription patients that the outside community will not service quite often. We see more high prescriptions probably than any place in the country. The places on the outside will definitely not take care of these people. If we didn’t take care of these people, a lot of people would be out of luck and not be able to be seen.” 

Darwin Richmond, optician, NY College of Optometry 

“We have a lot of gifts and talents and education to offer the public. This is a passion, it’s a calling, it’s not an easy job. All of us who became nurses and want to take care of these people want to help you. We want to help you live, we want to have you return to your normal life, whatever that will be for you because sometimes you’ll never return to what your normal was, so we try to help you manifest pride in who you are so you can walk away and be great.  

Amy Pacholk, nurse, SUNY Stony Brook 

“I think our hospital is great and I think our staff that we have is incredible. We have a purpose, we want to make a difference. In my job, I want to have an impact on that new mom becoming a mom for the first time. It’s a privilege and I enjoy being a part of that.” 

Debra Delgiorno, nurse, SUNY Stony Brook 

“I started as psychiatric nurse in OMH. It was a fascinating field, I loved it, I loved my patients, we had a good time. What I liked about state service is the pension. Everything that you get, especially being within a union, there is a sense of security, job security, you know if anything was to happen you can call somebody and you have those supports for you.” 

Adele Gutierrez, college health nurse, SUNY College at Westbury 

“A lot of the times you feel like you weren’t helpful enough and you see how much other nurses were struggling and suffering. I believe that if the state doesn’t fund us, not only the nurse’s physical well-being will go down, also their psychological well-being will go down. I believe as a nurse you have to be healthy and stay healthy physically and psychologically in order to promote health and I feel like this is one of the most important things. If we’re not funded, if we have less nurses taking care of people in the community, then not only their health will go down, our health will go down and that will affect the entire nation.” 

Natasha Balashova, nurse, SUNY Stony Brook 

“If the government does not help us to hire more nurses or hire more help, it’s going to be a collapse of the system. We’ve been hiring more and more but really nobody wants to come. If the government doesn’t fund us, I don’t know if they’ll ever come and ever work in our institution. We’re short to begin with, it’s going to be shorter.” 

Rowena Abersamia, nurse, SUNY Stony Brook