Elon physician assistant Heather Ratcliffe battles COVID-19 pandemic in New York

Faculty/Staff Health & Wellness Physician Assistant Heather Ratcliffe has returned to campus after spending 42 days treating COVID-19 patients in New York.

More than 200,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in New York City. More than 16,000 have died. As the city’s hospitals were bursting at the seams and medical professionals were pushed to the brink of exhaustion, an Elon staff member was packing her bags, preparing to confront the coronavirus head on.

“We hadn’t had a pandemic in 100 years, and I really just wanted to help people,” said Heather Ratcliffe.

A physician assistant for Faculty/Staff Health and Wellness in her eighth year at Elon, Ratcliffe spent nearly 10 years working in the emergency room at Alamance Regional Medical Center and three years in vascular surgery prior to that. As she saw the devastation of the global pandemic unfolding, she wanted to use her skills and years of experience to help the people of New York, even if it meant sacrificing her own health.

“When I hugged my husband goodbye, I didn’t know if that was the last time I was going to be home,” she said.

Ratcliffe took an hour-long bus ride to Lincoln Memorial Hospital each day with her fellow medical providers and nurses.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, Ratcliffe traveled to Bronx, New York, on April 1 to volunteer in the emergency department at Lincoln Memorial Hospital, which is home to one of the nation’s busiest emergency rooms. Ratcliffe volunteered at Lincoln through Krucial Staffing Agency, which supplies clinical and non-clinical support staff to locations in need of urgent medical assistance. In this case, Krucial Staffing Agency connected Ratcliffe with Lincoln, along with a team of medical professionals from Manhattan, Buffalo, New Orleans and Oregon.

Ratcliffe spent 42 days caring for patients in the hospital’s emergency department COVID-19 positive observation area. The temporary wing was meant to keep COVID-19 patients out of the emergency room and prevent them from spreading the virus to non-COVID-19 patients.

Ratcliffe lost count of the number of people she treated. Every bed, every room and every hallway in her unit was full until her last day on the job. Personal protective equipment had to be rationed. At one point, the hospital required 292 patients to use ventilators – the hospital only had 30 ventilators on hand prior to the spread of the virus.

“It was wartime medicine, basically. People were very sick,” Ratcliffe said. “The thing with this disease is you’d think they were doing well, and then the next hour they were decreasing in oxygen saturation, and they would go from looking fine to looking very, very sick very fast.”

Ratcliffe and other medical professionals worked around the clock, battling a virus with no known cure or vaccine. Ratcliffe worked 11 days in a row when she first arrived in New York. Her typical day consisted of a one-hour bus ride to the hospital, a 12-plus hour shift, and an hour ride home before eating food and heading to bed.

Messages of gratitude greeted medical providers at Lincoln Memorial Hospital each day.

It was a difficult experience for a number of reasons, but what helped Ratcliffe get through those six weeks was the support of the people of New York and her work family back in Elon. She fondly remembers care packages from Elon Health & Wellness, and New York residents putting up billboards, writing messages on sidewalks and finding a number of ways to show their appreciation for the medical workers at the center of the COVID-19 fight.

“Leaving your shift, New York City citizens in high-rise buildings would come to their windows and clap and whistle and bang on pots and pans as a way to say thank you for doing your shift,” she said. “That is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life.”

The hospital has since closed its COVID-19 wing, and Ratcliffe has returned to Alamance County as the number of cases in New York continues to decline. In her 42 days, Ratcliffe was part of the hospital’s effort to send more than 6,000 COVID-19 patients home from the hospital. She says her experience has left her feeling thankful and blessed, and as she returns to work, treating Elon faculty and staff, she will continue to display the passion for care that took her to New York in the first place.

“It’s a true love for my patients, regardless of where they’re from,” she said. “I possess a skill that not everybody has, and that skill does good. It’s a privilege to treat patients every single day.”