Staci Hedke at Metropolitan Hospital in NYC. CONTRIBUTED

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There are times when she’s by herself now – like when she drove from her home in Clayton the other day to the Tanger Outlets in Jeffersonville – that she thinks back to those hectic days trying to save people at the overcrowded Metropolitan Hospital in East Harlem as the COVID-19 pandemic was reaching its deadly apex in New York City.

Although working her 12-hour nursing shifts for 21 straight days amidst chaos and catastrophe and so much death, there were moments and struggles and sometimes faces that stood out to Staci Hedke.

“There was an Asian man I had almost the whole time I was there,” she said quietly. “He was small, probably in his 60s somewhere, and he was unresponsive. There wasn’t a lot of information about him and I couldn’t get ahold of his family, so he was alone.

“Nobody was advocating for him and there were days when I came in for my shift and he was filthy. I’d clean him up real good because I didn’t know when he’d be taken care of again. He just really grew on me.

“I gave him extra attention because I felt he didn’t have anyone else. I talked to him all the time and occasionally he’d open his eyes and try to speak, but he never could. Sometimes though, he would smile, but then he’d go right back out.

“I saw the picture of him in admissions and it turns out he’d walked into the hospital on his own and admitted himself. He looked very healthy then, but gradually he just deteriorated.

“That’s what COVID does to a person.

“When I left I got another nurse to look after him, but then I found out he ended up dying.”

She grew quiet, then said quietly: “He’s somebody I’ll remember.”

Back home now seven weeks, the 40-year-old Hedke has settled into her old routine.

She’s working again as a nurse with Ohio’s Hospice of Dayton and she’s immersed herself back in her family life with her husband, John, and their four children.

Her 16-year-old son Jackson is now playing on a select baseball team that’s travels to tournaments nearly every weekend, so the family goes along to cheer him on.

She’s starting up her side photography work again and, once the fall comes, she hopes to be back helping coach the Northmont High gymnastics team. But that depends of whether COVID-19 has been corralled enough that athletic competitions are safe.

Hedke worries that people, lulled into a sense of complacency, are becoming too lax in their safety measures against the coronavirus.

COVID-19 – especially with no vaccine yet – is nowhere near tamed. It’s still killing some 1,000 Americans a day and sickening more than 100,000 a week. According to just-released data from Johns Hopkins University, 19 states – especially Texas, California, Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina – are seeing a real rise in cases.

And there’s the threat of a second wave of infections come fall, something Hedke – like almost all health professionals – said is very likely.

She sees people not wearing face masks and ignoring social distancing at stores, communal gatherings and even her son’s ball games

“There were rules for the tournaments, but most people don’t follow them and no one’s really enforcing them,” she said. “They-re supposed to social distance in the dugouts and the coach got everyone masks, but no one is really wearing them Neither are the fans.

“Right now in a lot of places it looks like you can pretty much do what you want. I don’t want kids to be afraid – I want them to be able to do things – but yeah it does concern me.

Hedke Family (left to right) Owen, Jackson, Logan Staci, husband John and Collin. CONTRIBUTED

“That’s what a lot of the nurses I worked with in New York are now struggling with back home. It frustrates them. They said it feels like a slap in the face. Especially after what we saw people go through.

“I’ve never seen anything like COVID and what it does to a person.”

Inspired by parents

When she was growing up, her hero was her dad.

Donald Bittorf was a Vietnam vet with some “amazing” stories that mesmerized her. He then went off to work on the Alaska pipeline and other distant places. To her he was a bigger than life.

“But he fell out of a tree when I was eight years old and he was in the hospital a long time,” she said. “He almost died a few times in there. I was in and out of the hospital all the time then and I saw how the nurses helped people there.

“And right then already I realized that’s what I wanted to do. From the time I was eight, I knew I wanted to be a nurse.”

Her mom was an inspiration as well, she said:

“She went to college a little later in life – after we were grown – and she became a drug and alcohol abuse therapist is. My dad gave me my sense of adventure and my mom was the one who instilled helping people. “

A gymnast of note growing up, Hedke graduated from Northmont High School and then Wright State.

Now a hospice nurse, she took some of the lessons she learned here along with her to New York.

“I’ve been around plenty of people who were ill and contagious,” she said. “I’ve deal with plenty of patients with AIDS and hepatitis. I wasn’t afraid of going to New York.

“And in my job, I deal with a lot of death and dying. I’ve learned it doesn’t have to be scary and bad and painful. People think you work around death all the time, it must be horrible. But really, being around people who are dying can be a blessing. It can be a beautiful thing. A lot of patients are ready to pass onto something better and to share that with them is an honor.”

While the experience for COVID patients was different, Hedke felt what she knew could help people in a stressful time. And there certainly was a desperate need for nurses and doctors there as the virus overloaded the emergency rooms – and morgues – of New York City in early April.

After discussing the New York idea with her husband, an engineer who was working from home during the shelter in place orders, she also talked to their four boys – Jackson, 12-year-old Owen, Collin who’s 8 and Logan who’s 6.

She signed up for the assignment through Krucial Staffing and was part of one of several groups of 500 medical personnel from around the nation sent to New York and New Jersey.

She was put up at the Plaza Hotel near Central Park and bussed to the hospital at 1st Avenue and 97th Street.

Although Central Park, Times Square, the Brooklyn Bridge and the rest of New York City’s iconic landmarks were empty then, the sprawling 145-year-ol hospital facility – from which parts of the moody movie the Joker were recently filmed — was already under siege when she took her first night shift April 5.

She was girded in an isolation gown, N-95 mask, goggles, face shield, gloves and one special memento from home.

Her good friend and neighbor, Courtney Hart, has been battling breast cancer and Hedke wore one of her rubber remembrance bracelets of her wrist for inspiration.

Staci Hedke (waving on right hand side of bus) on way to Memorial Hospital. CONTRIBUTED

Patients clinging to life, many on ventilators, were everywhere and she did her best to care for them. Because doctors at the hospital felt certain medications that could ease patients’ discomfort would comprise their ability to breathe, it often was difficult getting the deathly ill to relax.

Hedke she did whatever she could for them. She helped those who were able to FaceTime with family members, none of whom were allowed on the floor. People who were dying, she talked to them, prayed with them and held their hand.

“I wish I could have done more, but it doesn’t haunt me now,” she said. “We did all we could”.

Another image that stays with her is that of an older man who made the rounds daily.

“He stood out because he just wore regular clothes,” she said. “He was a pastor there for something like 50 years and he stood outside each room every day and said a prayer.”

You’re a hero’

Although she worked the night shift, there were times she heard the people of New York – led by firemen, policemen and others lined up outside the various hospitals – give their rousing 7 p.m. cheers for the medical workers there who were sacrificing their own safety each day to help others.

“The city of New York – the people there – they’ll always be special to me for that,” she said. “They really appreciated us.”

And when she finally returned home at the end of April, the people in her Clayton neighborhood –along with a firetruck and a local TV news crew – gave her hero’s welcome.

“People say, ‘You’re a hero, but I don’t think that’s appropriate,” she said. “I think to be a hero you have to go into something with some fear and I wasn’t afraid. I had the training and I knew I’d get the protective equipment I had to have.”

She started to laugh: “But if people still want to call me a hero….well, that’s fine.”

While one of the nurses she worked with tested positive for the virus when she got home, Hedke – who quarantined 14 days after returning to Ohio – had no medical issues.

Although now back into her regular schedule here, she wonders about the challenges we’ll still face with COVD 19. She figures her Northmont team will be ramping up its season about when a second wave of the virus could arise.

Staci Hedke with the Northmont High School gymnastics team. CONTRIBUTED

If the situation becomes dire again in New York or some other part of the country, she said she wouldn’t hesitate to volunteer again.

“My dad’s Vietnam stories always inspired me and I always wanted to do something that compared a little to that kind of courage,” she said. “When I was in New York, I felt like I was serving such a huge purpose. There aren’t many opportunities in your life where you get to do something like that that’s so meaningful to someone else.”

And that’s why – when she has some quiet time now – her thoughts will sometimes drift back to that small Asian man, lying there all alone as she held his hand and talked to him.

And she remembers how, on occasion, he regained consciousness and for just a moment he managed to smile.

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