Shelter Island nurse tells her story from the front lines of the pandemic

Kelly Surerus is working 13-hour days, five days a week with some extra days thrown in.

She gets the first boat before dawn from South Ferry to go to her job as an intensive care unit nurse at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital. Then it’s nonstop, hour after hour, until it’s time to make it back to Shelter Island, where she lives.

Asked if she’s concerned about her own health and that of her family — husband, Brett, and children, Piper, 5, and Jackson, 6 — she responded without emotion, speaking instead about the practical procedures her profession demands during the pandemic.

“I take all my clothes and put them in a bag before I leave the hospital,” Ms. Surerus said, putting on fresh ones. “When I get home there’s a door that leads directly into the bedroom and the shoes stay outside.”

The clothes she’s worn home also go into a bag. The children know they “can’t be with me right away,” she said. After a shower, she “bleaches the bathroom.”

By then it’s 9 p.m.

At the hospital “it’s all hands on deck,” Ms. Surerus said, speaking about the work she and her colleagues are performing on the front lines of the health crisis.

“All of the hospital’s units are full,” she added, and any and all spaces in the facility are being repurposed for hospital beds, including offices. The availability of personal protection equipment for the staff is not a problem yet, but there is a constant focus on not wasting anything.

“We’re careful in rationing,” she said, “with one mask a day. But if it’s soiled, we can get another one. We all wear surgical masks all the time because, working so close to each other, we can’t always keep social distancing.”

When she’s in contact with patients, she puts on an N95 mask over her surgical mask, a plastic gown and protective shoe coverings.

“They say that a pandemic is more a marathon than a sprint,” Ms. Surerus said, meaning it will affect communities for months. “But we’re all sprinting.”

There’s a message posted in the nurses’ break room that is wise advice to not just healthcare workers on the front lines, but everyone, she said: “There is no emergency in a pandemic.”

This means that “we have to remember that we are essential people and we must take our time to ensure we’re safe,” Ms. Surerus said. “We can’t rush into a room to help someone before we’ve protected ourselves,” so the staff carefully dons the protective equipment, going through a mental check list of what’s needed.

Asked specifically how things had changed for her life with her family, her initial response was to laugh.

Brett is working from home, taking care of the children, “making meals,” and helping the little ones, who are coping well with the distant learning program provided by the Shelter Island School.

The family at the “Rocky Steps” in Philadelphia in February. Brett and Kelly with Jackson and Piper. “It feels like ages ago,” Ms. Surerus said. (Credit: Courtesy Photo)

Ms. Surerus said that the daycare program provided by the school “has been a game changer,” freeing up some time so Mr. Surerus can work uninterrupted.

Two school classrooms are open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. for daycare for parents working in essential services. This category includes first responders, healthcare employees, people in the food industry and others. It is by appointment only. For more information, call the school at 631-749-0302.

She gave a shout-out to School Superintendent Brian Doelger, Ed.D. and “everyone at the school, the staff, everyone. They’ve been great, reaching out to all the parents.”

Asked how her colleagues were coping with the flood of patients and the nonstop hours required to care for them, Ms. Surerus said, “Everyone is good. Morale is good, and we’re helping each other. Nurses who are pregnant, we’re telling them, ‘Don’t come in!’ ”

The future for Ms. Surerus and her colleagues is not something she dwells on. Her work is in the present. “We’re concentrating on doing our jobs,” she said.