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Deb Madsen is a former Cold Spring resident and traveling intensive-care unit (ICU) nurse. Her recreational vehicle is currently parked in the driveway of a home in Garrison.
How did you become a traveling nurse?
I lived in Cold Spring for 20 years until I started traveling nearly six years ago. For many years I worked at the Westchester Medical Center [in Valhalla] and Vassar Brothers Medical Center [in Poughkeepsie]. I was on call 24-7 for a year and was burned out. I needed some inspiration, so I bought an RV and took off. The contracts are three months; you’re there to help out when hospitals are low on staff. When I’m just driving, I’ll stay overnight in Walmart parking lots. When I’m on assignment, I’ll use a campsite because I need water and electricity. Every two years I come home [to New York] and visit friends and family, and then I hit the road again.
Where were you when the pandemic started?
I was in Sedona, Arizona, for six months, in a small community hospital. I started the job and all of the sudden, they’re like: “There’s this thing called COVID coming.” Everybody was scared. When we got our first patient, everyone thought it was the kiss of death to go into the room. So I was one of the first nurses to walk into our first COVID-19 patient’s room. After that, I went to Albuquerque. Usually, each ICU room has one patient; there, we had two in every room. There just weren’t enough beds.
Did working in multiple states give you a unique view of the pandemic?
It did. I know people like to say it’s the elderly, it’s the immune-compromised. It was everybody. We had 20-year-olds. We had 30-year-olds. We had physically fit people who were very ill. Whether local people believed in COVID-19 or whether they believed in wearing masks — you saw cultural changes with each region. It’s so strange to see people’s political beliefs dictate their health care. Even a few of the nurses I worked with were COVID-deniers.
What challenges do nurses face?
Full-time nurses have been doing the pandemic for almost two years. They’re exhausted; nurses are leaving the bedside in droves. In Nashville, the hospital pays nurses $17 an hour. It’s unbelievable. Pay, morale and safety, all of those are in jeopardy. I often think about a career change, but I find nursing to be my calling. At the end of the day, when I come home, it’s not about the paycheck. It’s about: I’ve participated in the universe. I’ve helped someone smile or I helped them get better. Spiritually, that’s more rewarding than the paycheck.
Where to next?
The South seems to be still struggling, I’ll probably head south in mid-October. Right now it’s just about getting to those places that need you most.