She Volunteered to Care for COVID-19 Patients in New York
Alex Malliaris, ELMSN-FNP ’18 couldn’t sit idle after the shelter-in-place order shuttered the Oakland clinic where she worked as a nurse practitioner and clinical services manager. So, when she got a call from her brother about a group organizing volunteers from around the country to serve on the COVID-19 frontlines in a New York hospital, she jumped at the opportunity.
“Working with this group in New York felt purposeful, intentional, and like the very best use of my time, talent, and training,” says Malliaris. “I was honored to be asked to participate and to have the way paved for me.”
Malliaris’ brother is a former special operations medic and Green Beret who’s now an ER physician in Florida, and the group she joined was a mix of former military medics and their families. When she arrived in April, she worked in NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center in what is often known as a step-down unit, caring for patients who have just been transferred from the intensive care unit and still require significant attention and resources. Before COVID-19, that floor had been an orthopedic unit but was transformed to handle the greater need for this level of care.
“Alex is one of the kindest and most compassionate clinicians I’ve encountered, and her patients benefited greatly from her presence,” said Kate Kemplin, who supervised Malliaris as chief nursing officer and deputy director for the Ryan Larkin NewYork-Presbyterian Field Hospital. “Alex provided superb care to COVID-19-positive patients, jumping right in with her knowledge and skills. I was extremely proud to have advanced practice registered nurses on site leading alongside physicians to care for very vulnerable patients whose families and livelihoods and communities had been so devastatingly impacted by this virus.”
“You don’t even want to take a day off”
Since graduating from Samuel Merritt University in 2018, Malliaris worked at Elyssium Advanced Skincare in Oakland. “A good portion of our patients are transgender and seeking femininization services, like hair removal or scar removal after facial feminization surgeries,” she says. “And that work has been very meaningful to me.”
While waiting to go to New York, she began working at a novel coronavirus testing site in Oakland. The day after she passed her clinical board examination, she was on a plane to New York.
“I went with my eyes and heart open,” she says. “We were immersed with the local teams, supplementing their staff. Our group included physicians, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants, and we directed the care—placing orders, developing a plan of care, and making sure it was executed by the nursing staff. We worked together shoulder to shoulder, and it ended up being a really beautiful union of the two groups.”
Malliaris cared for the same patients every day during the two weeks she worked in New York. “You’re basically living and breathing with these folks, and your whole world is revolving around them. You don't even want to take a day off when you know you can be bettering their life experience if you’re there.”
Love and compassion in a time coronavirus
She will never forget one particular patient, a 61-year-old male former delivery driver who was already fighting stage 4 prostate cancer and diabetes before his COVID-19 diagnosis. “If I only went to New York to know him and be a part of his care, it was entirely worth it,” she says. He was in constant pain because of a known side effect of a lifesaving drug he received for COVID-19. That drug caused dry gangrene in his hands and feet—which will eventually be amputated. “He had every reason to be despondent, discouraged, and afraid. Instead he carried with him a spirit of hopefulness and motivation that genuinely inspires me every single day since I’ve met him.”
Because no family members are able to visit the hospital unless their loved one is eminently dying within 24 hours, his two sisters were not able to see their brother. Malliaris facilitated FaceTime video calls with them a couple of times a day. She remains in touch with this patient and his sisters since she returned home.
Malliaris, who plans to enroll in UC Davis’ family nurse practitioner residency program in July, is grateful for the foundational and practical education she received at SMU. Before working in New York this spring, she had never worked as a paid staff member of a hospital’s in-patient unit, but thanks to her education and training she wasn’t daunted by it—although she found it humbling and exhilarating.
She implores all those with medical training to use the time they have to serve, whatever that means to them—whether it’s for the cause of people suffering from this virus or oppressed communities who are facing injustices right now, she says. “We can all be peacemakers as clinicians and we can bridge gaps for people—gaps of misunderstanding, gaps of prejudice, gaps of resources. To show our love and compassion in a time like this is really critical.”