“I was watching the nurses and the doctors and everyone in the healthcare industry just going through this trauma… It was just like people needed help and I had a chance to help.” -Jon Gunnell
Thanksgiving is right around the corner but new daily cases of coronavirus are worse than ever. In this episode, we’ll hear some tips for how to stay safe this holiday season. We’ll also hear the story of a nurse who decided to move across the country to help New York City in the early days of the pandemic.
Jon Gunnell: I got on Twitter and just started seeing the images. And I was watching the nurses and the doctors and everyone in the healthcare industry just going through this trauma. I was not, you know, oh I’m giving myself to this, I’m going to go up and do this. It was just like people needed help.
Celine Gounder: Welcome back to EPIDEMIC, the podcast about the science, public health and social impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. I’m your host, Dr. Celine Gounder.
We’re coming up on the worst stretch of new coronavirus infections since the pandemic started. And unfortunately, it’s happening right as many in the United States would normally be getting ready to travel to spend Thanksgiving with their families. This is a big risk at this stage in the pandemic, but it’s a dilemma many are struggling with.
Dr. Tony Fauci summed it up well in an interview with Dr. Howard Bauchner off the Journal of the American Medical Association:
Tony Fauci: You know, Howard, you don’t want to be the Grinch that stole the holidays, but I think one family group and individual has to take a look at what the risk is to your particular situation. And the reason I say that and I feel, you know, a concern about not doing that, that serious consideration, is that if you look around the country now that many of the infections are in small family and friend gatherings such as dinner parties and small social gatherings.
Celine Gounder: In this episode of EPIDEMIC we’re going to share some tips for safely celebrating Thanksgiving and the other holidays in the coming weeks.
But first we’re going to hear a personal story. Several months ago, I had someone reach out to me on Twitter wanting to share his story. In a dark time like this, I thought it would be nice to take a minute to hear about someone who was driven to do whatever they could to help at a time when New York needed it the most.
So, today on EPIDEMIC — love and care in a pandemic.
Jon Gunnell is a registered nurse from Arkansas. Jon had been working in hospice care before the pandemic. It had been a difficult few years. He had gone through a divorce and wasn’t sure about his career. He says he was depressed.
A few months before the pandemic, Jon took a job as a supervisor at a nursing and rehab facility outside Little Rock. As the coronavirus outbreak was spreading in New York and Seattle, Jon was thinking about his own patients.
Jon Gunnell: You, being a house supervisor at a nursing rehab facility, you have all these, uh, geriatric patients that are very susceptible. So we were trying to put guidelines in place at that point. And I was searching out the, you know, the best in the field to do what we need to be doing because everybody had no idea, you know, what we should be doing and nursing facilities.
Celine Gounder: The work was hard. So one of the things Jon would do after his shift to decompress was listen to the radio and podcasts. One of his favorites is the Dan LeBatard Show.
Jon Gunnell: And so I was sitting outside after I got back, I was working two 16 hour shifts on the weekend. And I got in one night around midnight and I just like, well, I got to catch up on these shows.
Celine Gounder: And I happened to be a guest on one of the episodes he listened to that night.
LeBatard: Let’s see if we get informed here a little bit. Dr. Celine Gounder with us on ESPN radio…
Jon Gunnell: He called you the disease detective and I listened to you and he asked you where you found hope.
LeBatard: Where do you see hope?
Celine Gounder: Um, I do see hope if I look through my Facebook feed and this morning I was looking through and it was full of pictures … sorry… it was full of pictures of my friends from med school, from residency, who are all…. Sorry… who are all gowning up and gloving up to the degree that they can but really under protected. And I’m terrified for them… I take hope in the fact that my colleagues are so committed and that we’re there for each other…
Jon Gunnell: –And it was probably about 12:30. Um, there was a quarter moon over Lake Washataw, and I just sat there and I listened to you and you broke down in tears and it really touched me. I was like, okay, I kind of need to get up there.
Celine Gounder: Jon had been seeing news stories and images on Twitter of what was happening in New York.
Jon Gunnell: I want to be there for those people that are dying alone, because as a hospice nurse, that was the, that was the last thing you ever wanted to have was one of your patients die alone. And the, all the stories of people dying alone and nurses putting their phones in their face. And they, you know, they couldn’t say goodbye. That struck me to the core.
Celine Gounder: Jon thought about it. He knew people in the New York area from his time in the Navy. He could stay with them until he found a job. But not everyone around him was supportive of the idea.
Jon Gunnell: I got a lot of pushback from friends that, you know, they’re like, how? How can you expose yourself to the virus? You have a 16 year old daughter. How can you leave?
Celine Gounder: Jon is close with his daughter. But because of his work with nursing home residents, he had to quarantine away from her. And he figured, if he couldn’t see her in person anyway… maybe it was better he did something he felt was more important.
Jon Gunnell: And I don’t want to downplay the job I was doing in Arkansas, but like I said, it was kind of a transitional job and I, I, I couldn’t have felt good about myself just to stay in Arkansas. We had a long talk about it and she said, dad, I’m proud of you if you want to do this. So, you know, once I got her green light, I was, I jumped in my car and drove 25 hours and came up here.
Celine Gounder: Moving to New York City to be a healthcare worker… in the middle of a pandemic… it’s not something everyone would do.
Jon Gunnell: I don’t want to let fear be in control of my life
Celine Gounder: That’s a credo that’s guided a lot of Jon’s decisions in life. When he wanted to serve in the armed forces but… had claustrophobia… he signed up to work on a submarine. A series of family tragedies built up a fear of death in him… That’s what pushed him into hospice care. So when the pandemic happened, Jon wasn’t someone who wanted to hunker down and wait it out. He wanted to get out and try to help.
Jon Gunnell: I kind of like living in a zone where I don’t feel safe, where I’m uncomfortable. That sounds so counterintuitive but um, I was suffering from major depression at that time and in the moment I arrived in Manhattan, I have not been depressed once.
Celine Gounder: Jon drove twenty-five hours from where he was living to Arkansas to New York City. He arrived in late March, when the worst of the outbreak there was still to come. A few weeks later, he had a job… but he wasn’t doing the hospice care he thought he would’ve.
When he started with a travel nursing company, the assignment he had was home-health nursing. And the assignment was about as far away as you could imagine from the lake he was sitting on a few weeks before… listening to the Dan LeBatard show. Jon was working in the Bronx.
Celine Gounder: As somebody from Arkansas coming to the Bronx, what did, like, what did the place look like to you? Like, you know, what stood out to you?
Jon Gunnell: Uh, what stood out to me was, uh, just the empty streets.
Celine Gounder: It felt like the city was at a standstill.
Jon Gunnell: You drive by Yankee stadium and I mean, there’s nothing. I just felt alone on the streets. It was like, I was the only one, me and the ambulances and a few other essential workers and I had the streets to myself.
Celine Gounder: It might be an understatement to say that Jon looked out of place.
Jon Gunnell: You know, here I am white with this redneck accent. And there was a UPS driver that came up to me one day and he goes, brother, what are you doing here?
Celine Gounder: He didn’t exactly look like a nurse either. After about a week on the job, he had stopped wearing scrubs in public.
Jon Gunnell: Cause wearing scrubs, uh, people would give you the side-eye because they thought, you know, you probably might be infected. So I stopped wearing scrubs after like the first week.
Celine Gounder: Visiting patients at their homes showed Jon how the pandemic was straining health services in the city. His first patient was a man survivor of gun violence. Jon got buzzed into the building where the patient lived.
Jon Gunnell: So, you know, went up and the Jamaican music was so loud, but the odor, the odor is the one thing that always hits you. And it’s just like, Oh goodness. Um, you know, I’ve got a septic patient.
Celine Gounder: Part of Jon’s job was something called debridement … basically, removing dead or infected tissue from a wound.
Jon Gunnell: He needed a debridement and normally I would just be able to, you know, grab my phone and say, Hey, can we order this medication and, uh, so we can get some of the slop out of this wound, whatever, but you couldn’t, you couldn’t, you just had to wait until it got bad enough till you had to send them to the ER. So yes, I remember that first patient, like it was yesterday just the frustration, it was like, they felt like it, nobody cares. Nobody cares. Just let me. Lay here and rot.
Celine Gounder: The healthcare system was overwhelmed.
Jon Gunnell: I don’t know any numbers. This is all anecdotal coming from me, but I bet we lost, uh, a good bit of those patients because they could not get their wounds debrided and they got septic.
Celine Gounder: A few weeks later, Jon started a new job at Metropolitan Hospital in Manhattan. He was going to be on a team running COVID tests. At first, Jon wasn’t too excited about the assignment.
Jon Gunnell: There were six other nurses and, um, you talk about baby nurses. These are baby nurses. Couple of them were brand new grads, never had a job before. Two of them were school nurses. Uh, you know, and I was like, Oh my gosh, this is going to be a bleep show.
Celine Gounder: Jon was the most senior nurse on the team. Many of his coworkers were young enough to be his kids… grandkids even. But he says they rose to the occasion.
Jon Gunnell: They jumped in and the testing ramped up and ramped up. We started doing antibody testing. So now all of a sudden, Oh wait, none of these people have ever drawn blood before, you know, uh, they just got it. And everybody found what their strengths were, what their weaknesses were. And it’s just like a collective unit came together. And I’ve never seen anything in all my nursing years like that.
Celine Gounder: Testing people for COVID also requires a lot of emotional work too, Jon says.
Jon Gunnell: Having to almost reassure every five minutes, a new patient comes into your room and they’re all just so anxiety-ridden and terrified, and you almost have to be a little bit of a therapist with everyone that comes in your room and you see 30, 40 people a day. I go home and I don’t, I, I can’t keep my eyes open. I just fall asleep from emotional exhaustion and it’s just this little group here. And we’ve become a family.
Celine Gounder: And Jon may have found something else in New York. Love. Shortly before he decided to move to New York and help with the pandemic, Jon had reconnected with someone from his past.
Jon Gunnell: I mentioned to you about being in the Navy back in the eighties. I fell in love, my first love was in Connecticut.
Celine Gounder: But it wasn’t meant to be… at least not then. There were family issues Jon had to deal with back home in Arkansas and she wasn’t ready to leave Connecticut. So… they broke up. Thirty years went by before one day, Jon was sitting outside his place back in Arkansas.
Jon Gunnell: I, I would like every afternoon, like I do pull up listen to the LeBatard show. I’m sitting outside, watching the bulls and the goats and, you know, the phone rang and, you know, it was her.
Celine Gounder: Jon had come up to visit her just before he moved to New York.
Jon Gunnell: It’d been a hard few years after my divorce, even though my ex wife and I have a wonderful relationship, uh, just, um, I needed to change the scenery and the fact that I knew that she was here and I felt so comfortable meeting her again for the first time in 30 years, that had a lot to do with it. And I know that takes some of the shine off of why I came up here, but, um, she’s just amazing. And it’s one of those little simple twists of fate that happened in your life. And you have to say, okay, I’m going to do this.
Celine Gounder: I wouldn’t say that takes the shine of it. If anything, some of the most beautiful stories I’ve heard during this stretch, including actually one of my best friends have been what this has meant for them getting close to somebody whether romantically or not, How has this played out with her?
Jon Gunnell: I’m sitting in her kitchen. I have every other weekend off. And, uh, so I drive up here every other weekend and it just gets, it gets better every other weekend.
Celine Gounder: We talk a lot about the negative aspects of the pandemic on this show — and there are plenty. It’s been a scary time and the burdens of COVID are unfairly levied on some more than others. But the pandemic also creates opportunities…to help a city in need… reconnect with someone … build a new life… that happens in the middle of a pandemic, too.
Jon and his partner are celebrating Thanksgiving together a week early, just the two of them out in Connecticut. After the break, I’ll share some tips on how to celebrate Thanksgiving and other holidays this winter as safely as possible.
I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. And today, I hope I can count on your support of Just Human Productions.
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In a time of crisis, we’ve discovered just how strong our spirit is. All around the world, people have come together to support their neighbors — offering their time, resources, and compassion to keep their communities safe.
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Celine Gounder: This is going to be a Thanksgiving like none of us have ever experienced before. COVID cases have exploded in recent weeks. At this recording, the United States was averaging more than 150,000 new cases of COVID everyday.
It should not be a surprise to hear that the safest thing to do this year is to limit your in-person Thanksgiving to just the people in your household bubble. Like Dr. Fauci said earlier, small group gatherings indoors have become one of the most common ways the coronavirus spreads.
But if you have decided to travel or get together with others, please take every precaution to protect yourself and others.
If you’re going to leave town, quarantine, or at a minimum, refrain from high-risk activities, like indoor dining, bars, and private parties. Be diligent about wearing a mask anytime you’re around people not in your household bubble. Get tested right before you travel, but understand… just because you test negative today doesn’t mean you won’t test positive tomorrow or the day after… or the day after that… out to fourteen days later.
If you must fly, wear a mask the entire time you’re in the cabin of the plane. It’s also not a bad idea to wear eye protection. This could be glasses, goggles or a face shield, along with your mask.
And once you get to your destination, make sure you already have ground rules in place. Like, how you’re going to eat.
Wearing a face mask while eating isn’t really an option. So make sure people are spread at least six feet apart. If you can, eat outdoors. Maybe this year, Thanksgiving is a family hike and picnic. Or you celebrate around a bonfire or fire pit. Or… if you can’t eat outdoors, prop windows and doors open wide to improve ventilation inside your home.
Robert Cialdini: So this is about probabilities. This is about mitigating the likelihood that there will be an infection
This is Robert Cialdini. He’s a behavior scientist who studies decision making. Robert and I, along with clinical psychologist Ben Michaelis, wrote an op-ed for CNN.com about how to safely celebrate Thanksgiving during the pandemic.
Robert Cialdini: If you’re going to have a Thanksgiving event where you have a lot of people there, you know, that you are making yourself susceptible and your guests susceptible to the problem. But what you can do is reduce the probability that there will be an infection as a result using these tips.
Celine Gounder: That means agreeing beforehand on the expectations around social distancing and wearing a mask. As a behavioral scientist, Robert has a few tips on what to do if someone doesn’t follow the rules.
Robert Cialdini: If somebody appears without a mask, you give them one. Right? You look like a caring person who wouldn’t want to infect your friends and relatives. Here’s a mask. So you have a set of those available.
Celine Gounder: See what Robert did there? He framed wearing a mask as something that a caring person would do. Studies show that linking a request with a positive trait — in this case, being a caring person — can increase someone’s likelihood of doing what you ask. He also suggested another tip. Phrase the request to wear a mask or social distance as an option; not a command.
Robert Cialdini: Of course, it’s completely up to you, but we would certainly appreciate it if you did this.
Celine Gounder: And lastly, like at any Thanksgiving, try to avoid a fight.
Robert Cialdini: Finally, you never confront them with some kind of argument you just bring them into the fold.
Celine Gounder: We’re all doing things differently this year. I usually travel to spend this holiday with my nieces. But not this year. I’m celebrating with my husband, just the two of us.
Robert is also changing things up.
Robert Cialdini: We usually have a large Thanksgiving and, uh, you know, with all of the trimmings, um, We’ll probably do it differently. We’ll um, order in Italian food.
Celine Gounder: And why not order-in Italian… or Chinese or do something totally different than you normally would for Thanksgiving. If this holiday is going to be different, lean into it. Think about this year as an opportunity to try something new.
Celine Gounder: When you think about what you’re thankful for this year, I really hope one of those things is your health. This is going to be a strange holiday, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a bad one. Being careful and following some simple steps this year will help ensure that we can all look forward to many more Thanksgivings in the future together.