A powerful March 2020 piece in the Post reported that Mount Sinai West nurse manager Kious Kelly had died of Covid-19. He had been working in a clinical setting in which nurses, lacking personal protective equipment, had been wearing trash bags as gowns. The hospital’s tributes to Kelly leaned heavily on angel imagery—the same imagery that encourages nurses to sacrifice themselves and not object to mistreatment or deadly resource shortages.
March 25, 2020 – Today the New York Post ran a strong article reporting that a nurse manager at Manhattan’s Mount Sinai West Hospital had died of Covid-19. Nurse Kious Kelly had himself reportedly cared for Covid-19 patients—in a clinical setting where nurses had been reduced to wearing trash bags as a substitute for personal protective equipment (PPE), a practice several of them revealed in a social media post (“#HeftyToTheRescue”). According to the Post, some nurses at the hospital linked Kelly’s death directly to critical shortages of PPE. Those shortages included gowns, masks, and cleaning supplies. Post reporters Ebony Bowden, Carl Campanile, and Bruce Bolding did a fine job of conveying the tragedy of Kelly’s death. The piece had comment from the hospital, which denied that it lacked equipment to protect its staff, but did pay tribute to Kelly as a “compassionate colleague” and “selfless caregiver.” And the Post noted that in January, the hospital had posted on its site a tribute to Kelly by a grateful family member, who praised Kelly as an “angel” who went “above and beyond” to show the family “empathy and compassion” during the critical time their mother was dying. While the qualities attributed to Kelly are important ones for any effective health professional, it might have been nice to hear a few more specifics about his practice and career. We note that angel imagery is often the dominant type applied to nurses in difficult situations. That practice supports a narrative in which nurses are expected to pay any price, bear any burden, and meet any hardship, but not to advocate for themselves and their patients in the face of understaffing and other deadly resource shortages. But here, Kelly’s nurse colleagues don’t comply. One says, “the hospital killed him.”
Above and beyond
The Post article was “Worker at NYC hospital where nurses wear trash bags as protection dies from coronavirus.” It reported that a social media photo showed nurses at Manhattan’s Mount Sinai West wearing large plastic trash bags because the don’t have the PPE they need to care for Covid-19 patients. In the photo, one holds a box of Hefty “Strong” 33-gallon bags. They are wearing surgical masks, which are far less effective than the N-95 masks.
“NO MORE GOWNS IN THE WHOLE HOSPITAL,” the caption reads. “NO MORE MASKS AND REUSING THE DISPOSABLE ONES…NURSES FIGURING IT OUT DURING COVID-19 CRISIS.” The caption includes such hashtags as #HeftyToTheRescue, #RiskingOurLivesToSaveYours and #PleaseDonatePPE, with the “ppe” referring to “personal protective equipment.”
Before we leave the trash bags, we note that such bags are not totally useless in protecting health workers from infectious disease. During the 2014 Ebola crisis, Liberian nursing student Fatu Kekula reportedly saved most of her family while protecting herself with trash bags. But we might expect more than trash bags from a hospital in one of the wealthiest cities in the world.
The Post report said that Kelly had died at Mount Sinai’s flagship hospital on the Upper East Side, after testing positive for the virus about two weeks earlier. Co-workers blamed the lack of basic supplies at Mount Sinai West, where Kelly worked. All the co-workers were anonymous, an unfortunate but understandable situation in light of possible retaliation. One reportedly said:
“Kious didn’t deserve this. The hospital should be held responsible. The hospital killed him.”
Another nurse said the hospital has had supply shortages for some time, but that it became “critical” when they started getting Covid-19 patients. A nurse noted:
“We had to reuse our masks, gowns and the [face] shield. We were told, ‘You get one for the entire time until this is over.’”
And items including masks, wipes, and hand sanitizer began “disappearing.” Nurse colleagues paid tribute to Kelly as a “brother” who helped others in need, especially during the Covid-19 crisis. Kelly’s sister Marya Sherron noted that he had been working in the ICU and she was “absolutely” convinced he got infected at the hospital. Sherron said the disease made it difficult for Kelly to speak, so he texted with family, until he stopped responding about a week earlier, apparently at some point after he was placed on a ventilator.
“We are broken,” she said. Sherron also said she wanted the city to know “what an amazing person my brother was” and to “hold the powers that be accountable.” … “Our nurses and medical staff need protection and no one is fighting for their safety,” she said.
The article says a spokesperson for the hospital “strongly disagreed” that it lacked the right equipment or was failing to protect its staff. The hospital also released a statement saying that it was saddened by the death of the “beloved member of our nursing staff…Today, we lost another hero — a compassionate colleague, friend and selfless caregiver.” The piece adds that in January the hospital had actually featured Kelly on its website, quoting a letter praising Kelly as an “angel” for his care for the letter-writer’s late mother, who had evidently died at the hospital from breast cancer the previous summer: “Assistant Nurse Manager Kious Jordan Kelly, RN, showed my mom and us empathy and compassion that helped us get through the weekend and what was to come…He went above and beyond and is an asset to the hospital.”
This is a familiar picture of dedicated nurses, Kelly and the others, putting themselves at risk to save patients in a crisis. And it is the qualities of compassion, empathy, selflessness—the angel—that we usually hear about when society is praising the sacrifice of such nurses. There are hints of something more in the family member’s letter: Kelly’s full name and title, and the reference to him being an “asset to the hospital.” That sounds like someone who saves lives and improves patient outcomes, someone who deserves the resources and support to continue doing so. But as long as society regards nurses primarily as virtuous and noble, rather than as highly skilled professionals, and socializes nurses to see themselves that way as well, it will remain difficult for them to advocate for and get the resources they need. At least here, Kelly’s surviving nurse colleagues are not following that model, as they mince no words in linking the shortage of PPE to his death. We thank those nurses and the New York Post.
See the article “Worker at NYC hospital where nurses wear trash bags as protection dies from coronavirus,” by Ebony Bowden, Carl Campanile and Bruce Golding, published March 25, 2020 on the New York Post site.