Rather than wait for the coronavirus surge to hit Central Ohio, Tom Huling moved into a sailboat in Brooklyn to help in the pandemic's U.S. epicenter. This is the story of a traveling health care worker on the front lines.

In early April, as the coronavirus ravaged New York City, Tom Huling received a text out of the blue from his friend Rachel Hartley, asking if he wanted to help. The two met while working at OhioHealth Grant Medical Center in Columbus a few years earlier, and Hartley had since moved to Virginia, where she was a surgical nurse. She was barely working because the pandemic had caused the cancellation of elective procedures, yet she had the intensive care skills to help with the outbreak. When a medical staffing firm contacted her, she and her husband agreed to relocate.

At first, Huling laughed off her text: No thanks, he had a good job as a nurse in interventional radiology at Grant. But he couldn’t shake the idea, so he began to pray. He’d always regretted not serving in the military, and this felt like a chance to help during a time of urgent need. He too had the necessary ICU experience. He also thought about his mother. If she were living in New York City and needed care, he hoped a nurse from another state would come to her aid. That settled it.

The day Huling gave his notice, OhioHealth announced a new policy. If workers left to take positions elsewhere in the country, they wouldn’t be eligible for rehire. According to a written statement from OhioHealth, it was implemented to ensure adequate staffing after early projections suggested Covid-19 cases would easily overwhelm facilities. The policy didn’t sit well with Huling, who felt he was being forced to choose between stepping up in a crisis and keeping a job where he’d worked hard for years. He didn’t want to have any more regrets.

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The Hartleys traveled on their 50-foot sailboat, Turning Points, to New York, where they met up with Huling and Emily Chafins, a Columbus native who was in a college program for physician assistants. They all lived onboard together during their stay. Huling and Rachel, both graduates of Worthington Christian High School, signed eight-week contracts with NYU Langone Hospital in Brooklyn, a medical center with about two dozen ICU beds under normal conditions. By their mid-April arrival, six entire floors had been converted into makeshift intensive care units to treat hundreds with Covid-19. At orientation, Huling says he was told 98 percent of all hospital patients had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Wearing a Tyvek gown, an N95 mask and a face shield throughout 12-hour shifts, Huling served as a bedside nurse for two patients a day. Without treatment protocols or much data on the virus, they tried everything: drugs to improve oxygen supply, ventilators, chemical paralysis, “proning” patients on their stomachs. They discovered the virus was causing massive strokes from which patients couldn’t recover. To the best of Huling’s recollection, nearly every one of his patients died during the first two weeks.

“It’s just hard to see that many people die every day, and there’s nothing you can do about it,” he says.

He worked the first shift four days a week, and Rachel worked the second. Her husband, Taylor, a college recruiter and photographer, served as boat captain, and Chafins volunteered at a food bank in Manhattan until her school reopened. Each evening after work, Huling got on a scooter—provided free to health care workers—for the 20-minute ride through empty streets back to One15 Marina in Brooklyn Bridge Park, which provided a complimentary slip for Turning Points with a view of Lower Manhattan across the East River. A marina restaurant also offered them free meals—Huling was finishing lunch there the first time we spoke.

Despite the harsh reality of the job, he enjoyed his first visit to New York, albeit a ghostly version of the city. He and his friends explored by scooter, visiting an abandoned Times Square and eating pizza by the slice. In mid-May, they sailed around the Statue of Liberty with some of their medical colleagues from around the country.

They were among thousands of health care workers who flocked to New York from all over, with 122 just at NYU Langone, Rachel says. “It’s been a really cool, unifying experience for nurses across the nation to come together and work together for this purpose.”

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Week by week, Langone started to stabilize. By early June, the six floors of Covid-19 patients requiring intensive care had been reduced to half of one unit—10 to 12 beds, Huling estimates. On June 2, he discharged a woman he’d been treating for weeks. She’s in her mid-60s, a high-risk age group, but after 22 days he accompanied her out to the car and her waiting husband. Huling hugged them both.

“It perfectly exemplifies why I’m here,” he says. It was a much-needed morale boost after all the death he’s seen. He senses that health care workers are finally able to catch their breath, and the full weight of what they’ve been through is just now sinking in.

As the end of their contracts neared, Huling and Rachel had no jobs waiting for them, a common plight among traveling medical workers who left their full-time roles to help, he says. They decided to sign new crisis contracts with Yale New Haven Hospital in Connecticut, and they planned to sail eight hours through Long Island Sound after their final New York shifts in mid-June. Huling says he will never regret making the decision to come and provide aid where it was needed most. During our conversations, I got the sense that the experience had shifted his perspective on the world and his place in it.

On June 6, a few days before leaving, he sent me a text reflecting on his time in New York. It was the anniversary of D-Day, and the message included references to military veterans and to the deep sense of duty and faith that had compelled him to go. In part, it read: “My heart is heavy, but my confidence is strong that I could do my small part in fighting a different war in a place many have called ground zero for eight weeks. God gave me the tools to serve in this battle, and I am proud to have done my part.” 

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