COVID SUIT, McLEOD

Crossett native James McLeod is shown here in full protective gear while working as a certified registered nurse anesthetist in New Jersey after overwhelmed hospitals there put out a call for critical care specialists to help with the COVID-19 pandemic. (SUBMITTED/News Observer)

Editor’s note: James “Jim” McLeod is a 1985 graduate of Crossett High School.  After graduating CHS, he attended Northeast Louisiana University. He also earned degrees from the Medical University of South Carolina, Clemson University and Emory University, and he is now on faculty at Emory University and a CRNA independent contractor.

He currently resides in Atlanta, Ga., with his spouse Yoshinori. He’s the son of Linda Kelley of Lake Village and the late Doyle McLeod of Crossett, and has a number of family members remaining in Crossett. When not in the operating room or the classroom, you can find him trekking around the world exploring various cultures, especially their foods and languages. Having family in the US, Japan and Australia provides plenty of travel adventures. 

His most recent adventure, however, was serving as a frontline medical responder during the heaviest days of the COVID-19 pandemic on the east coast. He has offered to share his story with his hometown as follows:

 

People often ask about my experience caring for COVID patients in New Jersey during the height of the pandemic in April. Looking back, it seems a lifetime ago — almost a blur. 

Like many certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNA), I faced temporary unemployment when hospitals in Georgia halted non-emergency surgeries to prepare for a surge in COVID cases. However, rural Georgia bore the brunt early in the pandemic, not Atlanta where I live. 

It was a Thursday in April when my friend and colleague Andrew called to let me know that he was going to New Jersey. His employer furloughed him as well as a CRNA. The New York and New Jersey hospitals were in dire need of critical care specialists to manage the overwhelming number of sick and dying patients. CRNAs provided an invaluable resource to hospitals given their anesthesia education and prior ICU experience. He was answering their call for help. 

Hearing the concern in his voice, I knew that I had to join him and the others. I could not let my colleagues and the ones that I mentored go and risk their lives alone. They were my COVID warriors, and I was so proud of them. 

In less than a week, I arrived at a hospital across from New York City that was clearly in crisis mode. Sensory overload greeted me as soon as I walked through the doors with nonstop overhead pages announcing patient codes. COVID patients filled the ICUs beyond capacity, requiring the hospital to erect additional MASH-like units. Frontline staff from across the country were caring for the barrage of patients but also were replacing the doctors and nurses who were out sick or, unfortunately, had died. Everyone was exhausted. But it was only one hospital of many in the Northeast experiencing the same. 

I located the command center for protective equipment and ID and then reported to my assigned ICU. As I stepped into my new role, I immediately had to orient to new staff, an electronic health record, and a hospital system while assuming the care coordination of extremely ill COVID patients. 

The physicians, nurse practitioners, and CRNA’s worked together nonstop along with the ICU nurses and respiratory therapists to desperately save our patients. We all had inadvertent exposures, which presented a constant threat to our own health. I endured nightmares and sleepless nights as a result. 

The virus often proved unforgiving and unpredictable by attacking all body systems. There was no magic bullet. No one seemed safe as our patients ranged from young adults to the elderly. We celebrated the miracles but witnessed death on a scale that many of us hope to see never again. The saddest memories will always be the times that we assisted families with their goodbyes over a video call. 

My stay lasted just three weeks, alternating 12-hour shifts day and night across two hospitals. When not in the ICU, I directed attention to my nurse anesthesia students for their final pharmacology lectures and exam. The transition to online learning due to COVID provided me the flexibility to take Emory University to New Jersey. 

I left New Jersey emotionally and physically exhausted having survived off coffee, Red Bull and adrenaline. I am indebted to my loving Crossett family for their prayers, texts, and surprise care packages. 

I will always remember the many acts of kindness as people in New Jersey openly expressed appreciation to their frontline visitors. Families would wave and greet us with signs every evening as we left the hospitals. Supermarkets created exclusive lines so we could shop for food in a hurry. Hotels provided happy hours and special dinners to make us feel more at home. More importantly, people displayed a sense of community for the tragedy. Wearing a mask was mandatory and a civic responsibility that no one questioned.  

Each of the COVID warriors finally returned home to quarantine away from the families that had reluctantly let them go. We never saw ourselves as heroes but simply as people fulfilling a duty. 

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