Aliyah Haynes is in her third year as a registered nurse on the Med-Surg unit at Overland Park Regional Hospital (OPR), while also working in at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. She grew up in Olathe, Kansas, before journeying to Pittsburg, Kansas to attend nursing school at Pitt State. In 2016, she met KU basketball All-American Perry Ellis through mutual friends and the two began communicating while Ellis pursued his professional career oversees. When he returned in 2018, they began dating and have been together ever since.
At the end of this March, Haynes received a message on Facebook from OPR’s sister hospital in New Orleans, Tulane Medical Center, asking for volunteers to come assist in the treatment of COVID-positive patients as the community had been hit especially hard by the virus. Haynes was given two days to decide. After speaking to family, friends and her boyfriend, she was on a plane to New Orleans 48 hours later.
During the final week of her rotation to Tulane Med, both Haynes and Ellis jumped on a call to talk about the experience and the impact of the pandemic.
Q: Aliyah, talk about this decision and how difficult it was. The quick turnaround time had to make this a huge whirlwind for you, right?
Haynes: “I let them know on a Monday that I wanted to go and they got me a plane ticket for Wednesday. They posted about it a couple of days before I committed to it. They wanted to have an answer by that night and I wasn’t able to give them an answer that night because I know my family was questioning it and they were unsure about me coming out here, which made me unsure about it. So I pretty much made the decision two days after they posted about it and two days later I got on a plane and flew down here.”
Q: You see this message about the opportunity in New Orleans, take us through your thought process? Were you nervous, excited, a little apprehensive? How long did it take you to tell them yes?
Haynes: “When they originally posted about it, I knew I wanted to go. I brought it up to everyone, and when everybody was on edge about it, I think I kind of put their emotions before how I felt about the situation. My mom was very concerned about me coming out here and obviously Perry had his concerns also. I kind of let it go for a couple of days, but it stayed in the back of my mind that I really wanted to do it. I really wanted to go. I woke up that Monday morning and I saw that they posted about it again on Facebook – how there were five people from OPR committed to going – and I just knew right then and there that I had to go. There were going to be other people with me from my hospital, from the unit I work on. I just really feel like, in the end, God wanted me to come.
“I pretty much committed to it before I even told Perry that I committed to it, and before telling my family. I made some phone calls and told them I was going. I walked out to the living room and told Perry I was going to New Orleans, which he was fine with. He was questioning (it) at first, but once he knew I was serious about it and how I really felt that God was leading me out here, he was fine with it. I just knew that day that I was meant to come out here and help this community.”
Q: Perry, when Aliyah first told you about this opportunity, what were your thoughts? Were you nervous or happy for her? Take us through your thought process around this.
Ellis: “At first I was nervous. She was talking about it and I didn’t know that she was serious about it. At first, I was like, ‘Okay, she says she wants to do it, but maybe she is messing around.’ I didn’t think she really wanted to do it. And then she kept talking to people and making calls, she came out to talk to me and was very serious about wanting to do it. She prayed over it and when she said that she really wanted to do it, I was fine with it. She had something that she felt like was her calling to go out there, experience this and help that community. Overall, I thought that it would be good for her. I was all for it from that point on.”
Q: Aliyah, what are your days like at the hospital? How long are your shifts? What specific areas are you stationed in?
Haynes: “I have a Med-Surg background so I’m a floor nurse right now. Normally in a hospital you have different units — Med-Surg, ICU, Telemetry – but since there are so many COVID-positive patients right now, it’s pretty much only COVID-positive units. It’s not really broken up into the normal units we’re used to. When we go to work, we walk from the hotel – we’re pretty close to the hospital – we wear our own clothes and then change into their scrubs so we’re not bringing home the scrubs that we’re wearing at work. We get changed and we have to wear a mask the whole time, we have to wear masks all day long. We get up to three patients per day. I’ve had only COVID-positive patients since I’ve been here. (Having only three patients) is honestly amazing as far as a nurse-patient ratio. Luckily my patients have been stable so far so I haven’t experienced anything too crazy with this virus and my patients. My patients have been so sweet. I think the people who have been stationed in the ICU have had it a little rougher than we are (having it), just because they are dealing with patients who are intubated and in much more serious condition.”
Q: It must be incredibly difficult to work in an area that has been so affected by this pandemic. What has the emotional toll been on you and your coworkers?
Haynes: “It’s been emotionally challenging. I’ve gotten emotional a few times. My first day here, just listening to the staff talking, they all have been so affected by this. That made me realize how real this is and how serious it can be. I’ve worked with two nurses who both had moms who were intubated and in the ICU. It’s just crazy. I worked with someone on my first day whose mom is in the ICU, whose sister was in the hospital and had two cousins who had died from this. Walking into it on your first day, just hearing those stories and seeing how these people can still come to work with a positive attitude, it made me realize how real this is. But also, how amazing it is that the community is coming together and still remaining positive and still wanting to help out these who are sick even though they’ve been affected by it personally.”
Q: With that emotional toll, talk about how important your different support systems have been to you during this time. Whether it’s Perry, your family or your coworkers – have they been helping you through this and how much has that helped?
Haynes: “I never realized how much love and support I had from my coworkers and my family and friends. They’ve all sent me really great messages. I got a package of CLIFF bars today with no name on it, so I don’t even know who to thank for that. It’s been really amazing. My friends have Venmo’d me money for coffee. That was another thing that made me emotional. Originally, I was really nervous, and I posted about it just so people knew what I was doing. The amount of people who were reaching out and people who said they were praying for me, it really calmed my nerves. It made me very proud to be a nurse and proud of the decision I made to come out here and help.”
Q: What has it been like in New Orleans? Obviously, it has been a very hard-hit community, what is the attitude of the patients and nurses despite such difficult days?
Haynes: “The community has been amazing. They’ve delivered food to us every single day. It just shows their appreciation for us. The greatest part of our day, at the end of the day, all of our staff hold LED candles and we say a prayer at the end of the shift. I believe there is one candle for every patient. We just pray for all the patients and pray for the community. It’s amazing to me. I’ve heard people say that the only way they’re getting through this is because they know God is real and God is on their side. It’s been amazing to see the community come together, still have faith and still have hope that they can get through this.”
Q: Now that you’re near the end, have you had a chance to look back on your time there and evaluate what you’ve been through?
Haynes: “Honestly, I can say that this has been such an amazing experience, although it came through such horrible circumstances. Everyone has been so great out here. They’ve just been so appreciative and grateful that we’re here. The community has been so supportive. They’ve delivered free food to us every day. I think we get at least a few meals each day at the hospital. Most importantly, the patients are so thankful to have us there, because I know they’re very scared. I just think it’s very reassuring to them that we’re here to help them and that we want to be there to help them. I think it helps them feel safer.”
Q: Perry, what does it means to you to see what Aliyah is doing?
Ellis: “I’m very proud. I’ve got a lot of people in my life who do so much to help other people, from my parents to Aliyah and so many of my friends. It’s just a great feeling to know that I’m a part of that and being around that is so uplifting. It’s an incredible thing to see.”
Haynes completed her final shift at Tulane Medical Center on Friday, April 18. She has returned safe and healthy to Kansas.