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L+M nurses shoring up need at Greenwich Hospital, hard hit by the coronavirus

New London — Michelle Murphy, the first to go, said she found "organized chaos, the Wild West," when she arrived at Greenwich Hospital last Saturday.

"That's where I should be," she said. "That's why I'm a nurse."

Responding to Greenwich Hospital's SOS, Murphy and dozens of other Lawrence + Memorial Hospital nurses have been traveling to Fairfield County, the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in Connecticut. By helping a fellow Yale New Haven Health facility in need, they can expect some reciprocation if and when the disease's surge continues to move eastward.

"Our L+M nurses have been heroic, raising their hands," said Beth Beckman, Yale New Haven Health's chief nursing officer. "They've brought clinical talent but also an attitude of caring."

Beckman said a hospital system's ability to redeploy resources among its affiliates is a distinct advantage, particularly in the case of a pandemic that seems to come in waves. COVID-19 may not have reached southeastern Connecticut in a big way yet, but it likely will, she said. As of Friday afternoon, L+M was treating eight inpatients who had tested positive for the novel coronavirus disease, three of whom were in the intensive care unit. Greenwich Hospital had 115 "positives," including 19 in intensive care and 17 on ventilators, according to Beckman.

Across the Yale New Haven Health system, nurses are hired and trained the same way, have the same competencies and hew to the same standards, she said.

Cari Gutelius, an L+M nurse who oversees some 200 staff in a half-dozen departments, including inpatient oncology, inpatient surgery, the maternity ward and the newborn intensive care unit, said she hasn't been on the front lines in eight years. But she, too, is answering Greenwich Hospital's call, as are 30 to 40 of her colleagues.

"My cousin just got off a respirator yesterday in New Jersey," she said. "I felt like I needed to do something. Greenwich is really struggling."

Gutelius, 50, of Wakefield, R.I., understands she'll be paired with a bedside nurse and that the two of them will have responsibility for up to five or six patients, all positive for COVID-19. She's heading to Greenwich early Monday morning and expects to work three 12-hour shifts before returning home Wednesday. She'll stay Monday and Tuesday nights in housing that Greenwich Hospital is providing for staff treating COVID-19 patients.

"I'd sleep in my car if I had to," Gutelius said.

With the benefit of time, L+M has been able to prepare for a surge in COVID-19 patients. It has freed up space, staff and equipment by postponing elective surgeries, such as orthopedic procedures, that had been scheduled on the surgical floor where Murphy works.

"They took all my scheduled hours so I can go where I'm needed," Murphy said.

Murphy, 32, who lives down the street from L+M, was returning Friday night to Greenwich, expecting to come home Monday. She said Bridgeport Hospital, another Yale New Haven Health affiliate, also needs assistance.

She recalled the scene at Greenwich Hospital last Saturday, describing it as "organized chaos, like something you'd expect to see in the Wild West, everyone trying to keep everyone stable." Assigned to an intermediate care unit, she had responsibility for up to four COVID-19 patients at any one time and "focused on keeping my four alive."

Murphy said when they're not "gowning" — donning and removing personal protective equipment, which consumes much of their time — the nurses closely monitor their patients' heart rates and rhythms and their breathing.

If a patient needs to be put on a ventilator, "It's out of my hands," she said.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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