Coronavirus in Oklahoma: How a college softball player went from OSU to NYC to become a front-line fighter
Editor's note: This is the first in an occasional series about former athletes who have become front-line workers in the coronavirus pandemic.
Teresa Ritchie went into the bathroom to cry.
As an intensive care nurse at New York City’s largest hospital network, she is engaged in an unrelenting battle against the coronavirus. She has seen lots of sickness and sadness and far too much death over the past couple months, and recently after losing another patient to COVID-19, she sought a moment alone.
She took off her protective gear — she needed to be free of it even if only for a moment — and in the isolation of the bathroom, she sobbed.
That’s when she looked in the mirror and saw the marks on her face. The indentions on her cheeks that have almost become permanent. The red patch on the bridge of her nose rubbed raw by her mask.
She decided to snap a picture of herself.
“As a reminder to myself of that moment,” she said. “Of that patient.
“Of this experience.”
When Teresa Ritchie left Stillwater for New York City nearly a decade ago, she never imagined this would become her reality. But the former Oklahoma State softball player became a nurse because she wanted to help others, providing care and showing compassion during people’s toughest days.
This virus has made that job as difficult as it’s ever been.
“People are nervous,” she said via phone during a rare day off earlier this week. “Nurses are nervous. Doctors are nervous about contracting the virus.”
But Ritchie isn’t abandoning the fight.
She’s always been a competitor.
Growing up in Arkansas, softball became her passion. She went to Henderson State in Arkadelphia to play Division-II ball, but after two years, the outfielder transferred to OSU. She played for the Cowgirls from 2000-02.
“‘Played’ is kind of a loose term,” she said, laughing. “I was on the team.”
She graduated with a health promotion degree in 2003, then decided she wanted to be a nurse like her mom had been. Ritchie got her nursing degree from Oklahoma City University in 2009 and went to work in intensive care at Stillwater Medical Center.
At the time, Ritchie was dating someone who had family in New York City and wanted to be closer. They decided to make the move, to experience a new way of life, to see a different part of the world.
Richie went to work at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center as an intensive care nurse in the float pool. That meant she would go to the ICU that needed extra help. Some days, it was the burn unit. Others, it was surgical or neuro. But when she landed in the cardiothoracic ICU with open-heart-surgery patients, she had an epiphany.
“This is it,” she thought. “This is where I want to focus.”
She loved the speed with which most patients healed and improved. While some took longer, many took major steps toward recovery in only a few days. Feeling she enhanced and helped that recovery was extremely rewarding for Ritchie.
In late March, Ritchie’s ICU still had cardiothoracic patients, but seeing the COVID-19 cases skyrocket in New York City, she knew it was only a matter of time before her work transitioned to COVID care. Every other ICU in the hospital had, and eventually, the cardiothoracic ICU was changed.
The first day, Ritchie remembers a few COVID patients coming, but since then, the flow has been constant.
“The floodgates opened,” she said. “Once the rooms are cleaned, we started getting transfers in from either outside hospitals, transfers from the emergency department. Those first few days, it was pretty evident that, ‘OK, well, now it’s our turn.’”
Ritchie went from working three or four 12-hour shifts a week to working five or six. She leaves home before 6 a.m. and often doesn’t get back until almost 10 p.m., and every day is an onslaught of non-stop stress.
“You are literally moving constantly to try to help combat this scenario,” Ritchie said. “I move to my other patient’s room to help do that, and I’m moving to help another nurse with their patient, so it was just a constant moving.
“I’ve never worked so hard in my professional career physically, mentally as I’ve worked in this last month.”
Ritchie says the physical demands are tough but manageable. The mental demands are trickier to navigate.
There’s the constant concern about catching the virus and getting sick. In Ritchie’s ICU, steps were taken to minimize contact. Ventilators and monitors and pumps were moved out of patient rooms into the hallways. That way, nurses could adjust settings and dosages without needing to put on head-to-toe protective gear.
But of course, patients also need hands-on care, and that puts the nurses in harm’s way.
“A lot of sensory overload,” she said. “The alarms are ringing. The ventilator alarms are ringing. The IV pumps are ringing. The phones are ringing.”
Every minute of Ritchie’s shifts, someone needs help. Might be one of her patients. Might be someone else’s patients. In some instances, there simply aren’t enough hands to help everyone.
COVID-19, after all, has shown itself to be a steady but sure killer.
“It just literally destroys (the lungs),” Ritchie said.
That lung damage starts a cascade of issues that are nearly impossible to treat, much less reverse.
“Medicine and external devices can only do so much,” Ritchie said, “when your body has reached the point where it cannot recover from this invasion.”
The final hours are difficult, and Ritchie has found them even more heartbreaking because that’s when family members may be allowed in. Ritchie is used to family and friends coming to visit her patients. She gets to talk to them and learn about their loved one. What are their hobbies? Are they married? Do they have grandkids?
“We get to have a backstory of who they are,” she said.
“We don’t have that backstory.”
Visitors aren’t allowed for COVID patients, but in those final moments, a single family member may be admitted. As a charge nurse, Ritchie is often the one who greets that family member and accompanies them into the room.
One woman came in to see her sister and shared a few stories.
“You kind of remember that we’ve lost that human connection,” Ritchie said. “That’s a really hard thing for a lot of us.”
Sadness has swept over Ritchie at unexpected times. Walking home from the hardware store one day, she broke down. Going to bed at night, she struggles to find enough peace to sleep much at all.
She leans on family and friends. She talks to a therapist. She monitors how she is feeling. But even though she is open about her struggles, that doesn’t fix everything.
“I sometimes have a hard time explaining what’s happened within those hospital walls — ‘How can I really make you fully understand what everybody as a collective unit has done?’” she said.
Teresa Ritchie has been through hellish days, and even as the surge begins to subside in New York City, she knows there will be more excruciating moments. More sadness. More tears.
But she also knows she is where she is supposed to be.
“Wild horses,” she said, “could not have kept me from the work that I was doing.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.
Have a story?
We want to share stories of former athletes who have become front-line fighters during the coronavirus pandemic. If you are one or if you know of one, email NICsportsdesk@oklahoman.com.