Story by Anne Tate
Broadcast by Jackson Lanier
Graphics by Eleanor Burcham
Alan Grizzard is the type of man to run toward fires. So when he told his wife, Sterling, that he wanted to travel around the country to fight a novel virus, she wasn’t surprised.
“What am I going to do, sit here?” Grizzard said. “When nurses and doctors are literally dying because they don’t have enough help? I can’t do that. I can’t watch other people drown.”
In March 2020, during the first major surge of COVID-19, Grizzard, 44, called Krucial Staffing, a high-volume emergency provider of clinical and non-clinical staff, to register as a reservist. Two days later, he was on a plane to New York City.
Grizzard, a registered nurse and now family nurse practitioner, traveled from his home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to New York City, San Antonio and Amarillo, Texas, to provide “surge in crisis” relief during the COVID-19 pandemic. He paused his job at Wake Forest Baptist Health but continued his studies to earn his master’s degree in nursing.
“I’m going to catch it, that’s fine, it is what it is,” Grizzard thought.
The Jacobi Medical Center emergency room was so busy in late March and early April 2020 that Grizzard didn’t have time to think about catching COVID-19, a virus that at the time, he knew little about.
“I just did everything I was supposed to do,” he said. “I knew I was walking around the ER, swimming in COVID. But somehow or another, I didn’t.”
Every day for almost a month, Grizzard boarded the 5:45 a.m. bus from Manhattan to the Bronx. He arrived at the level one trauma center hospital, signed out and dressed in his personal protective equipment, and jumped into the action in the 90-bed emergency room. At any given time, there were 150 patients – 90% had COVID-19, 5% were waiting for their positive tests to come back, and 5% were regular ER patients, Grizzard estimated.
“We just had to figure out how the hell to get them out, get them what they need, and get them home before they catch COVID,” Grizzard said of the regular ER patients. “The pace was unbelievable.”
After a 15-hour shift, Grizzard rode the bus back to Manhattan. During the 45-minute ride, he FaceTimed Sterling and his kids, Rylan, 12 and Natalie, 10. If he was lucky, his DoorDash order was waiting for him in the lobby when he arrived at the hotel. Grizzard ate dinner and did school work until he fell asleep. From time to time, he’d look up and see Madison Square Garden across the street, its neon lights shut off. Times Square was empty.
“It was eerie. It was really weird,” he said. “It was something like I’d never felt before, and I hope I never feel that again.”
The next day, he woke up and did it all again.
This wasn’t Grizzard’s first time working in New York City during a crisis. Three days after 9/11, Grizzard worked as a paramedic at a triage tent shelter in the field for four days.
“COVID was a whole different ball game,” he said. “This is something we knew nothing about. It was unpredictable. The sick after the sick after the sick after the sick – it was a perpetual wheel of people in, in, in.”
Most people who came in didn’t leave.
Grizzard realized the severity of COVID-19 during his second to last shift in the Bronx emergency room. In just one day, there were nine COVID-related deaths. All were younger than 45 years old. One patient was a 30-year-old pregnant woman with no pre-existing conditions. They saved the baby. It was then that he realized the coronavirus could be dangerous for all demographics.
“It was just a helpless feeling,” Grizzard said. “Here we are. We’ve got all of this knowledge and this technology and this pharmacology and this know-how and the aptitude to be able to fix people – and we can’t.”
But slowly, some situations improved.
“When I got there, we didn’t know anything about it and by the time I left we were doing Remdesivir, the antiviral infusion that they found out makes a huge difference.”
During Grizzard’s last week, the first COVID-19 patient admitted to the hospital, who had been in the intensive care unit for more than a month, got to go home. Clinicians paraded him out in a wheelchair with streamers, pom poms and confetti. The energy was changing. Outcomes were improving. When a breathing tube was removed from a patient, the hospital played “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten over the PA system.
Throughout the pandemic, there’s been an influx of clinical workers deployed across the country to aid overburdened healthcare systems. Many nurses are putting their lives on hold to travel to COVID-19 hotspots.
Organizations like Krucial Staffing help make this possible. Based in Overland Park, Kansas, the organization was founded in 2019 to respond to what seemed to be the ever-growing occurrences of emergencies like natural disasters.
“In a hurricane emergency we’ll usually deploy 200-300 people, which we thought was big,” Krucial’s CEO Brian Cleary said. “But for COVID, we activated and deployed more than 20,000.”
In the early days of New York’s COVID-19 surge, Krucial sent approximately 4,000 clinical workers to the city – including Grizzard.
“We had a high level of passion amongst the workers here and really got our social media off the ground,” Cleary said. “We literally did not have to do much paid advertising – we would just post on social media when we were going to activate staff.”
The organization posts the time that its phones go live, and people call in to sign up.
“It caught on like wildfire. We still have thousands of people calling every day looking for new assignments,” Cleary said. “One time our phone vendor said we had over 1 million calls coming in to our emergency operation center.”
After seeing Krucial’s Facebook post, Grizzard was on the phone for hours dialing. “I dialed about 4,000 times,” Grizzard said. Finally, he got through to register as a reservist for Krucial’s third wave of clinical workers to New York.
When the reservists show up on site, Krucial has a logistical team meet, greet and get them onboarded. Krucial covers wages, transportation, a private hotel room, and food. They partner with the 10-33 Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides support such as mental health services to first responders. In New York, there were two mental health counselors in each of the six hotels housing workers. In Texas, Krucial and 10-33 set up a phone line for staff to call in for counseling.
“It’s been so rewarding and emotional to see our frontline heroes setting life aside and going into the war zone and taking care of folks,” Cleary said.
Four months later, Hurricane Laura hit Texas. The day after Grizzard graduated from South College in Knoxville, Tennessee, and earned his Master of Science in Nursing degree, he left home to help in an emergency evacuation shelter in San Antonio.
Makeshift tent pods – the refugees’ temporary homes – were scattered throughout the Freeman Coliseum. People, many from coastal Texas and coastal Louisiana, had nowhere else to go. Their homes were flooded, maybe destroyed, and their lives were scattered. Close to 300 of the residents had some type of chronic medical need, Grizzard said. And COVID-19 was still very much alive.
“We had to improvise and get very resourceful in that kind of environment because we’re not in a hospital,” Grizzard said. “And we’re in the middle of a damn pandemic. It’s not like we can just go down to the store and buy 500 boxes of gloves.”
Grizzard was in his element, and he liked that he exercised his professional training and knowledge base. He took care of 20 patients, all under hospice care.
“The last thing we want is for somebody under hospice to pass away in the shelter because the whole point of hospice is quality end of life on their own terms,” Grizzard said. “And this was not on anybody’s terms.”
“I’m sorry,” a patient said, as Grizzard helped set up a FaceTime call with his family.
“You need to stop apologizing because there’s nothing for you to apologize for,” Grizzard said. “Don’t fight for me, fight for you and your family. I’m just here to help you through it. I’m just a guy from 1,300 miles away.”
Grizzard met this patient on his first day in the Amarillo emergency room. The man had come out of the ICU that day, but was still very sick. Grizzard took care of him every day, gave him frequent blood transfusions and helped him keep in touch with his family, who couldn’t visit him.
“He tried to give up but I wouldn’t let him,” Grizzard said. “He told me the only reason he wouldn’t give up was because I was there.”
On Grizzard’s second to last day, he watched the patient wheel out of the hospital to go to in-patient physical therapy rehab.
This time around, Grizzard knew more of what to expect, so he was more mentally and physically prepared than during his time in New York.
“There wasn’t an aura of panic at this point in time,” Grizzard said.
There were more treatment regimens, better health outcomes and more positive moments. Redemsivr had been proved effective.
But when Grizzard was in Amarillo, the city surpassed El Paso as the #1 hotspot in Texas, he said.
“Just when you think there’s rhyme or reason, COVID has other ideas,” he said.
On Thanksgiving Day, Grizzard wheeled a sick woman to the ICU to be with her husband of 60 years as he passed away from the coronavirus. She was there for several hours until he died. For the next few days, Grizzard stayed by her side. He was upset that COVID-19 is what separated them.
Closing the circle
One year and three days after Grizzard’s first deployment, he administered his first COVID-19 vaccine. He was at the vaccine clinic as a scribe, but wanted to vaccinate at least one person that day.
“That closed it all out,” Grizzard said. “That closed the circle for me because I’ve been very, very passionate and deeply involved in it since the very beginning, on a lot of different levels.
COVID-19 started as a novel pandemic, and a year later, he’s vaccinating people for it.
“It’s a feeling I cannot describe to you in words,” he said.