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by Elaine K Howley

May 19, 2020

Lauren Twombly and Kathleen Crowell are doing their part to help people affected by the novel coronavirus

Over the past two months, as the COVID-19 pandemic has expanded, many nurses, doctors, physician assistants, and other caregivers have found themselves deemed not just essential, but critical. They have faced extreme difficulties, from keeping themselves and their families safe and healthy to supporting patients who are sick and fearful.

It’s been a tall order, but these health care professionals, among them many U.S. Masters Swimming members, have risen to the challenge with admirable grace.

Kathleen Crowell

For the past several years, Kathleen Crowell, a certified nurse anesthetist was working on a per diem basis at three hospitals in Manhattan. Normally, she works with patients and operating room staff during elective surgeries.

When the pandemic hit, Crowell saw nearly all of those elective surgery bookings evaporate overnight, as hospitals around the country moved to cancel all but the most critical procedures in a bid to reduce the risk of transmitting the novel coronavirus.

Though she might have been idled, Crowell had experience caring for emergency and intensive care patients, so she had the necessary skills to make her more than a little essential in hard-hit New York hospitals. She was called up to help at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and has been working there nearly full-time ever since. 

“They floated us to the ICU,” Crowell says. “That’s where the bottleneck is.”

There, typically the ratio of nurse to patient is 1:1 or 1:2, but during the surge, she says, “each nurse was covering four patients and they’re the sickest in the hospital. They’re on a ventilator or dialysis and need care 24 hours per day.”

Now, Crowell is caring for these patients and covering the operating room for other emergency cases.

“It’s all-hands-on-deck in the ICU. There aren’t that many nurses who are trained for that and you can’t just put any nurses in that critical care environment,” she says.

She’s been covering a lot of nights and typically works 13-hour shifts.

Along the way, she’s had to resurrect some less-recently-used knowledge and skills to care for these patents, many of whom are sicker than they might have been had they sought care earlier.

“They come in and they’ve probably been putting off seeking help for something,” she says. “People are so scared. Some of them have come in with a disposable surgical mask they’ve been using for days or weeks and are so scared to take it off. They ask me, ‘Are you going to give it back to me after surgery?’” 

She says about half of her co-workers have taken time off because they’ve tested positive for COVID-19 or were sick. The concern that she could be exposed is constant.

To help mitigate that risk, Crowell says that when she gets home, she strips down, puts her clothes into the laundry, and showers. So far, she and her husband are both well and have shown no signs of infection.

As the severity of the crisis has begun easing, Crowell is seeing more elective surgeries being scheduled and may soon go back to her previous routine of working in the OR on those less critical cases. For now, her hospital is cautiously inching back to normal footing.

Overall, she says the experience has been stressful but that she’s glad she’s been able to help. The Red Tide Masters member enjoys open water swimming and describes swimming as a coping mechanism that helps her manage mental and physical stress.

“When I get stressed, it goes into my low back, and swimming helps me loosen that up and strengthens my core. It’s preventative maintenance for my back, and I’m definitely missing it,” she says.

Especially now that she’s working in a more stressful and physically demanding role, a bit of swim therapy might help a lot.

“The ICU especially, that’s hard work,” Crowell says. “Those nurses are a special breed. I did it for two years before I want back to school. Hats off to them for what they do. If anything good comes out of this, I hope it’s that we’ll appreciate ICU nurses and teachers more.”

Lauren Twombly

Berkeley (N.J.) Aquatic Masters member Lauren Twombly is a clinical researcher at Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a division of Johnson & Johnson. But she’s a physician assistant by training and as such, immediately recognized that she might be able to help others during this crisis.

Twombly began volunteering with a local drive-through testing center in March and says she’s been working there one or two days per week since, in addition to their full-time job.

At first, she says, the experience was “scary and eye-opening into the reality that life really has changed forever.” She remembers back to a day in late March when many people sought testing: “There were so many people waiting in cars. Some people looked so sick and you’re trying to communicate with them with the windows rolled up.”

Safety protocols stipulated that people arriving for testing should queue in their cars but keep their windows rolled up until it was time for the nasal swab. This made communication and caregiving more difficult.

“We’d hold up signs saying, ‘Feel Better’ to reach out to the patients,” Twombly says. “It was very sad. But I was thankful to be doing something that could help in this pandemic.”

A competitive swimmer since she was 7, Twombly attended Duquesne University in Pittsburgh on a swimming scholarship. She says she thought she would be “done with swimming after I graduated from college. But that lasted a year. Then I joined USMS and the Berkeley Heights team and met great people.”

In a creative attempt to swim during this time, she says, she “followed one of my fellow swimmers’ ideas and bought a 2-foot Intex small pool. I use a bungee and was able to swim one time, but it’s been freezing.” As the weather improves, she’s hopeful to be able to employ this creative solution to help cope with some of the uncomfortable feelings that she would otherwise work through with swimming.

“[I’m] hopeful that once we get a vaccine and get this under control, we can go back to a more normal way of life,” Twombly says. “But the next couple of months or years are going to be challenging. We’ll need to be creative in our new way of living and make the best of it.”


  • Human Interest