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How family and faith helped a Utah nurse provide care in New York

Utah nurse Brittany Critchfield, left, stands with Amy Castiglia inside Long Island Community Hospital in New York. Critchfield just returned after spending over a month working in New York.
Brittany Critchfield

SALT LAKE CITY — After more than a month in a New York, Brittany Critchfield is grateful to be back sleeping in her own bed and spending time with her family in Utah.

The 28-year-old nurse and former BYU track and field athlete took leave from Salt Lake Regional Medical Center from April 13 to May 20 to lend her skills and experience to Long Island Community Hospital in New York, one of the locations hardest hit by the spread of COVID-19.

Critchfield witnessed her fair share, along with feeling of fatigue and mental stress that comes with working long hours in a busy hospital. When she wasn’t working, Critchfield was mostly confined to her hotel room. As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she said she found spiritual strength through daily prayer and scripture study, and appreciated the long-distance love and support of family and friends during the intense experience.

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, something that has changed me professionally and personally,” Critchfield said shortly before she flew home. “These will be invaluable memories to look back on.”

Critchfield documented her time in New York — 24 12-hour hospital shifts over six weeks — with a daily blog, including 39 posts. Already a dedicated journal writer, she wanted to keep her family informed and provide an accurate account of what she was observing in one of the world’s coronavirus hot spots.

“Coming from a state where the coronavirus hadn’t had an impact, I thought it was important to write about my experiences and show the devastating effects it’s having on people’s lives,” Critchfield said. “I think there’s a lot of disbelief in Utah, even myself at one point. ... Then I got to visualize it firsthand and thought, ‘People need to know about this.’”

Her blog gives readers a realistic sense of what medical professionals are facing in New York, from daily deaths to the joy of seeing a patient recover and walk out of the hospital.

Critchfield saw more death in New York that she’s seen in her entire career. She recorded this observation of death on Day 3.

“Death is peaceful,” Critchfield wrote. “My mind might not be able to grasp the finality of it. But what my eyes always recognize, is that the person is at peace. Whether they were suffering, or it was an unexpected passing, they all look the same and there is some comfort in that appearance.”

But nothing was better than seeing a patient heal. On Day 9, Critchfield noted that the hospital administration would play a clip of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” each time a recovered COVID patient left the hospital. That day it played six times, she wrote.

In other posts, she described a nurse’s anxiety of feeling overwhelmed and tired, wondering what more could they have done for a dying patient, worrying about making a mistake that might affect the patient, wanting family members to know nurses cared about the patient, too, and staying calm under pressure.

One of the hardest aspects was caring for patients who couldn’t communicate. Critchfield missed the opportunity to form a relationship with the purpose of truly helping them, not just making them comfortable.

“You want to try and help make a difference,” she said. “When you feel like you’re not making a difference, that gets hard.”

Utah nurse Brittany Critchfield takes a selfie at Long Island Community Hospital in New York.
Brittany Critchfield

Despite the challenges, Critchfield found balance while isolated in her hotel room. She worked out doing yoga five days a week and often planned a delicious evening meal she could look forward to, usually something with seafood.

Critchfield did her best to start each day with prayer asking the Holy Ghost be with her and guide her through the day, especially in blessing lives at the hospital. She also found peace and inspiration by reading the scriptures and studying the church’s “Come, Follow Me” curriculum.

“Prayers, scripture study, and knowing I wasn’t alone, that I was supported by heavenly parents, it helped a lot to feel that support,” Critchfield said.

In one a small way Critchfield was like a Latter-day Saint missionary. As far as she knows, she was the only member of her church working at the hospital. On many occasions co-workers invited her to go for a drink and when she declined, more questions inevitably came. Having grown up in Oregon, she was used to answering those questions.

As he prepared to fly home last week, Critchfield said her biggest takeaway of the experience was the importance of people in our lives.

“It’s the people I met here and the people I’m going home to,” she said. “I have realized how much of an influence and how much happiness and joy they bring to my life. I can be as independent as I want, but I’ll never be as happy as I would be without the people I have in my life now.”