Buffy Riley, right, and one of the nurses she works with treating patients hospitalized with COVID-19 at Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Center in New York. (Photo by Buffy Riley)
Buffy Riley, right, and one of the nurses she works with treating patients hospitalized with COVID-19 at Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Center in New York wear masks made by Eau Claire resident Deb Peterson and sent to Riley. Nurses at many New York hospitals said they lack enough masks and other personal protective equipment. (Photo by Buffy Riley)

Nurse contracts COVID-19 despite safeguards while treating patients in New York City

Editor’s note: This is the seventh in an ongoing series of stories profiling Buffy Riley and her three weeks working as a nurse in the center of America’s coronavirus outbreak. These links will take you to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6 of the series.

Three weeks after leaving her home to help nursing colleagues halfway across the country treat patients critically ill with COVID-19, Elizabeth “Buffy” Riley learned Saturday that she has contracted the virus. 

Riley, of Hayward, worked for three weeks in a hospital in New York City, the center of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. She spent 17 days straight, 12 hours daily, working among patients so ill with the virus they required ventilators and multiple medications to remain alive. 

She returned to Hayward late Thursday and was tested for the virus the next day. Her sample was sent to the state Laboratory of Hygiene in Madison for testing. On Saturday she received the bad news that she had contracted the virus.

Riley, 62, is honest about her fear of having COVID-19. She watched many people die of the illness despite receiving medical care during her time in New York. She knows all too well the devastation the virus can wreak on the body, how it ravages some people’s lungs and causes other organ damage, how people die without family and friends present.

“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit scared,” she said Sunday from a friend’s cabin north of Hayward, where she is living alone in quarantine. 

Riley said she is not surprised she contracted the virus after working in an intensive care unit at Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Center in Brooklyn. She described those conditions as “bathing in a COVID-19 bath, surrounded by it 12 hours a day.”

But she is facing her diagnosis much like she does the rest of her life, those who know her said. She is matter-of-fact about her situation, monitoring her condition and resolute that she will be OK. 

“I don’t want others to worry about me,” Riley said. “I don’t want people thinking I am going to die.”

To stave off fears about her prognosis, Riley focuses on gratitude about being home, away from the seemingly never ending beeping and whirring medical machines, away from the mounting death toll she encountered in New York. 

Those surroundings have been replaced by the scenic setting of a cabin in the northwoods of Wisconsin next to a small lake. Riley finds solace in outdoor naps in the sun, the sounds of a loon calling in the morning and frogs in chorus at night.  

“This is such a beautiful place,” Riley said. “It really does help me feel better.”

Difficult decision

Riley began feeling sick on April 19, when she developed gastrointestinal discomfort, shortness of breath, body aches and a cough, all symptoms of COVID-19. She didn’t have a fever, another telltale sign of the illness, but when she awoke the next day, Monday, she felt worse and not up to the rigors of another day in the ICU. 

She said she tried to get a test to see if she had the illness, but was told by staff for the company she contracted with to work in New York, Kansas-based Krucial Staffing, she did not qualify for one. Krucial did not return a call Sunday seeking comment.

Riley’s breathing became more labored as the day progressed, and she grew increasingly tired and achy. Her cough grew more persistent. On Tuesday she felt even worse, and stayed home from the hospital for a second day, too fatigued to work. 

Riley said she was told by Krucial she had to work at Woodhull the next two days, and that she could be in the ICU, even if she had contracted COVID-19, as long as she did not have a fever and wore personal protective equipment.

On Wednesday morning Riley showed up for work and was immediately told by her supervising nurse to leave because she appeared too sick to be there. Riley did and said she was subsequently told she could receive a test in New York but would have to be quarantined in her hotel room for at least a week to 10 days, and maybe longer, with no guarantee of food or other assistance.

With uncertainty and no support system in New York as she continued to feel worse, Riley opted to fly home one day before her previously scheduled flight back to Wisconsin. She wore a mask and gloves, and airplane staff kept her and others on the partly empty flight spaced apart as far as possible. She arrived at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport late Thursday afternoon.   

Riley acknowledged concerns expressed by some about her flying home while possibly infected with COVID-19. The state Department of Health is contacting others on her flight, she said, and monitoring whether they were infected. 

“I didn’t want to fly, but I didn’t feel like I could stay in New York,” she said, noting she never intended to endanger others. “So I wore protective gear and stayed away from everyone as much as I could.” 

Riley said she continues to feel sick. She is thankful for the many messages of support she receives daily. The backing of others helps her deal with her illness, she said.

“I’m just sitting here trying to get better. It’s all I can do right now,” she said. “I just want to feel good again.”