Caroline Accardi’s father Frank is an ophthalmologist. At the start of his career he saw physicians refusing to treat HIV patients, because they feared the deadly disease.
“Doctors take an oath to help everyone,” he told his daughter.
That made a big impression on her. Her mother Ellen was a role model too. A cardiac ICU nurse by training, she now sells heart defibrillators and teaches CPR.
Caroline’s younger brother Andrew battled neuroblastoma for 15 years. She helped care for him. When he died in 2013 — just 20 years old — her goal of serving in the medical profession was cemented.
After graduating from Staples High School in 2010 and James Madison University 4 years later, Caroline earned a nursing degree. Since 2016 she’s been part of the post-anesthetic care unit at New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery.
She’s in the recovery room with patients after hip and knee replacements, and spinal surgery. When Governor Cuomo halted all non-essential medical procedures in mid-March, her hospital dropped from 60 to 80 cases a day, to 5 to 15. (Those were emergencies, like broken hips.)
For 2 weeks, Caroline had little to do. She saw so many other nurses doing so much. “It was such a helpless feeling,” she recalls.
The Hospital for Special Surgery is connected by a bridge to New York Presbyterian. When that facility was flooded with coronavirus patients, those who were not infected were moved to Caroline’s hospital. But so many people got sick, the Hospital for Special Surgery soon took them too.
Her hospital turned 9 operating rooms into makeshift ICUs. The strategy was to contain the virus in those special units.
Quickly, she says, “we went from taking care of healthy, recovering patients, to treating very, very sick people.”
She relied on training from nursing school she had not had to use before. “The tasks were the same, but the critical thinking was different,” she explains. “My brain had to make a total shift in how I looked at things.”
The Hospital for Special Surgery treated COVID patients throughout April. “We were there for hours at a time,” Caroline says. “The teamwork was incredible.”
As a private hospital, they were fortunate to have plenty of PPE on hand. Caroline work a gown over her scrubs; an N95 mask, with a regular mask over that; 2 hairnets; an enormous face shield, and 2 pairs of gloves. She felt “very protected.”
Yet the days were long, and physically and emotionally draining. At one point there were 20 patients in ICU. At least one or two died every day.
“People were on ventilators so much longer than usual,” Caroline says. “And no families could visit. We had to explain over the phone how sick their loved ones were. They had to make life-or-death decisions without being there.
“As nurses, we want people to die with dignity. Families had to say goodbye to people they knew would die alone.”
Many patients had underlying health conditions. Some did not. And some were in their 30s and 40s.
When the last COVID patient left on April 30, Caroline saw “the light at the end of the tunnel.” Neighboring hospitals too were less overwhelmed.
“What everyone is doing — all the social distancing and following guidelines — is working,” she notes.
Still, elective surgeries will not be scheduled until everyone feels safe.
The Hospital for Special Surgery has taken care of its patients — and staff. Personnel received 2 bonuses, and can take days off with 80% pay if there are no cases.
Of course, it will take a long time to return to whatever the new “normal” is.
But when we’re there, Caroline Accardi will be there doing exactly what she always dreamed of doing, and has always done: helping others.