Making a difference: Visiting nurse is fighting COVID-19 while living out of RV in Greenport

In mid-March, as the COVID-19 infection rate began to grow, Roman Gnatenko received a phone call from an agency in the Midwest that places qualified nurses with hospitals that need extra staff during emergencies.

“I’d always had my eye on [Stony Brook] Eastern Long Island Hospital,” the New York City resident said. “It seemed like a great place to work. Now I was being told they needed staff and I needed to be there in a hurry — like the next day. So I packed up and went.”

The number of people on the North Fork infected with the coronavirus on March 17 when the call came through was low, the wave just beginning to build. But it was expected to begin to grow sharply, and the Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital administration needed to be prepared.

“We called the agency to see what was available, because everything was telling us a surge might be coming,” said Paul Connor, the hospital’s administrator, in a recent interview.

A little publicized part of Long Island’s efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic is the use of nurses and other professionals from agencies that specialize in temporary employment during emergencies. “If you know you are short in one area, or could be, this is what you do,” said Mr. Connor in that interview.

The Greenport hospital initially brought in 15 so-called “agency” staffers, including Mr. Gnatenko, who is a nurse and a mental health professional. He said in an interview that when he arrived in Greenport he found there were nurses from Mississippi and Florida who had also come to help out. 

Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead has about eight agency nurses on the staff now, helping out in critical areas like in the Intensive Care Unit. But there is another reason at both the Riverhead and Greenport hospitals for bringing in the extra help: It allows staff personnel to take days off and regular breathers away from the front lines. 

“When these folks come, we give them an orientation period and then they go right to work,” said Mr. Connor. “Most have at least 10 years’ experience. They want to do something, they want to help.”

Hundreds of agency nurses are spread throughout the Northwell Health system, said Christine Kippley, PBMC’s chief nursing officer. She and Mr. Connor said the agencies they use vet the credentials of those they place and guarantee licenses, which allows the hospital to quickly place the extra staff where they are needed. 

“Typically, we use agency staff as little as possible,” she said. “But here at Peconic in the summer months we get an influx of people coming to our emergency room, so we always have agency personnel there. They come from other parts of the country and work here for the summer. They are traveling nurses.

“It’s great if you are young and want to see different parts of the country,” she added. “And once things settle down with the virus, regular staff can begin taking days off and even vacations because we will have the backup.”

The agency system is similar to firefighters coming in from different parts of the country to fight a wildfire in, say, California: help is needed, and quickly. That’s how it worked for Mr. Gnatanko. The call came, and soon he was en route to Greenport. 

He was born in Urkaine and came to the U.S. when he was 10 to live with family in Brooklyn. What makes his story a bit unusual during this pandemic is his housing arrangement: He is living in his RV in the Eastern Long Island Kampground in Greenport, whose owners, Sean Magnuson and Chris Winter, have opened it for frontline health care workers at no cost. 

On Thursday, Mr. Gnatenko, 38, posed by his RV, giving the impression of a camper enjoying the beauty of the North Fork rather than a health care worker helping keep people alive at a nearby hospital.

“My specialty is behavior health,” he said. “After I got my degree I became a travel nurse. It is usually a contract for maybe 13 weeks. We get a few days of orientation and then hit the front lines in times of crisis like this one. The agency vets our credentials so the hospitals know what they are getting.”

Asked why he didn’t look for a permanent job at a hospital, he said, “I love nursing. It is ever evolving. There is always something to learn. My mind is thirsty for new knowledge and new schools of thought.” 

Besides, he said, he likes the idea of a new environment and new challenges.

Once he got the call to come to Greenport, he needed a place to park his RV. When a staffer at the hospital mentioned the campground, he jumped at the chance. “I spoke to Chris and Sean. They said, ‘Bring your RV here. You don’t have to pay for anything, we will take care of you.’

“I usually work four days in a row, 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. in the Behavior Health Unit. People come into the emergency room with a lot of anxiety due to being isolated and quarantined. They come in and we work with them. I discharged one of my patients the other day and he hugged me and said a thousand thank yous.

“I would do this just for moments like that,” he said.