TAYLORVILLE (AP) — Deana Stefko, a nurse practitioner who works in Taylorville, says there were heartbreaking times as she watched COVID-19 victims die while on a five-week deployment to New York and New Jersey as an Air Force reservist.
Stefko, 36, a native of Rochester, New York, who is a member of the 914th Aeromedical Staging Squadron based at Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, was called to the East Coast to help treat the surge of coronavirus patients there.
"The patients were very ill," she said. "To be in full PPE (personal protective equipment) for 12 hours and then to take care of extremely sick patients on ventilators and not have the family be at the bedside was hard. ... We were constantly on the phone with the families giving updates."
"Unfortunately, most patients who ended up on a ventilator just weren't making it."
During her deployment, Stefko split her time between the Javits Convention Center in New York, where a temporary field hospital was set up, and University Hospital in Newark, New Jersey.
The Javits Center was used mostly for patients recovering from COVID-19, though it contained some intensive care facilities. In New Jersey, Stefko dealt with many critically ill patients.
Now a resident of Taylorville, Stefko works as a nurse practitioner at HSHS Medical Group Multispecialty Care clinic there. While deployed, she had the role of critical care nurse, working at patients' bedsides.
That work required her to don "head-to-toe" protective gear, including a surgical hairnet, an N95 mask covered by a surgical mask, a face shield, one or two gowns depending on the situation, gloves and foot coverings.
A majority of patients were elderly, Stefko said, but some were in their late 20s and early 30s.
"It's extremely sad and heartbreaking, especially without allowing families to come in and say appropriate goodbyes," she said.
What about the risk of infection?
"I think I felt more anxious about being exposed outside of the hospital than in the hospital," she said. "But ... there's always that fear that you're going to bring it home to other people, your colleagues or family once you come back."
She said she went through a 14-day quarantine and tested negative for the coronavirus before returning to work in Taylorville.
Back in central Illinois, she said, she follows Centers for Disease Control guidelines to stem the potential spread of COVID-19, and thinks others should do so as well.
"Even if you're young and healthy," she said, precautions are necessary.
"Not only are you protecting yourself, but you're protecting someone's grandma or grandpa — the elderly and the immunocompromised who are mostly affected by this," she said.
Being in health care, she said, "I wear my mask when I'm out in public. I wear it at work. So I do recommend ... that we should just continue to follow the guidelines until we know more about this and where to go with it in the future."
Stefko has been in the reserves for 15 years.
"I think this is what you kind of sign up for when you get into health care and especially in the military — to be able to provide support during these hard times," she said. "It just makes you really ... appreciate life and your health. Honestly, anything can change at any time."
She also appreciated the opportunity to help treat people affected by the pandemic.
"To be a part of the experience and to be able to help out and be a part of history, it was a great experience and I'm glad that I had the opportunity," she said.