East Tennessee healthcare worker shares experience treating COVID-19 patients in New York

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — In late March, Rachel West nervously sat on an airplane heading toward New York City. West, who was alone, was feeling a Rolodex of emotions, everything from anxious, overwhelmed to nervous.

“(I) didn’t really know what to expect,” West recalled.

Her trip included several items on the “New York City bucket list” for first-time tourists: She walked through Times Square, marveled at the Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty, and strolled through Central Park. But most of her five-week stint in the city was spent inside Bellevue Hospital braving the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve seen that many sick people,” she said. “I mean I’ve seen sick people but the fact that an ICU usually holds 10-20 people per hospital and the hospital I was at there was three floors of ICU patients.”

West graduated from South College’s Physician Assistant program in December of 2019 and had plans to work for a local medical office. When the COVID-19 pandemic led to layoffs before her first day, West decided to go to New York City to help.

“I thought I was the perfect person to go up there,” she said. “I’m not married, I don’t have kids, I’m healthy.”

West originally committed to 21 days in New York, she quickly added an additional two weeks to her itinerary once she realized how desperately help was needed.

“Everybody kept thanking me for being there and I didn’t really realize how much help they actually needed,” she recalled. “In my eyes I saw so many of us show up at once but the fact that they were so happy for us to be there made it all worth it.”

Upon returning to Knoxville, West spoke with students about her experiences in New York helping patients battle against COVID-19, including grueling schedules, determining accurate diagnosis and treatment.

“In school here at South I had learned all of these things and it was all fresh,” she said. “I was uncomfortable because I hadn’t applied for it but I still knew what I was doing.”

Her main message to the students who sat in the same chairs she sat in just a few months ago, was to trust the education they’re receiving: “Not doubt yourself, throw yourself out there a little bit to show you can do what the rest of PAs are doing,” she said.

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