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Mother daughter duo serves on pandemic frontline

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Grossi
  • 910th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

An alarm sounds in a New York City hotel room at 6:30 in the morning. Micaela Gutlove throws on some everyday clothes, places her cellphone in a plastic zip-lock bag and hurries to make the shuttle heading for a hospital in Harlem by 7 a.m. She clocks in before making her way to the hospital’s breakroom to change into her blue-green medical scrubs and a pair of pink and grey running shoes she specifically uses for her day in the hospital. Normally, she’d check up on her patients. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, she first gears up with multiple layers of personal protective equipment.

A few miles away, Micaela’s mother, Lt. Col. Susan Gutlove, is donning the same type of protective gear over her Air Force Reserve uniform while at New York City’s Javits Center.   

The women put on shoe covers, then rubber gloves and large heavy gowns. Hairnets and goggles add to the protection of standard N95 masks.

Micaela wears a bandage on the bridge of her nose to protect her skin from the tightly-fastened mask she wears for her 13-hour shift. Since the N95 mask is such a valuable resource, she covers it with a surgical mask to ensure it is protected throughout the day and can be reused the next day.

Upon entering a patient’s room, yet another mask and gown are required. She writes “MICAELA RN” on the front of her gown so her co-workers and patients can easily recognize her. Just below that, she draws a smiley face. Though the masks and vestments are mostly made of paper, they trap her body heat. As her goggles slowly fog over, it becomes harder to recognize her co-workers, some of whom wear photos to reveal who they are beneath the layers of protection. 

Micaela has three patients to provide care for, a dramatic decrease from the 14 patients per shift some nurses experienced at the onset of the outbreak.  She makes her rounds, ensuring each patient receives the correct amount of oxygen through ventilators, CPAP masks or nasal tubes. Although all of her patients have COVID-19, most have secondary issues they struggle with, like diabetes or high blood pressure. Each of these underlying issues requires its own specific form of care. Medications, IVs, diets, medical procedures, even helping people get to the bathroom—these are all things she needs to stay on top of.

Everything she does requires skill, patience and sincerity of care above all to ensure those who are sick can return home to their families. Beyond the physical needs of her charges, she does what she can to ensure their psychological needs are met. With the few moments of extra time she has, she talks with them and comforts them as they regain their strength. Sometimes, when the ward’s electronic tablet is in use, she offers her own phone to facetime the patient’s family and friends, if only for just a few moments.

After working for 12 hours on the front line, Micaela returns to her hotel room and throws her clothing into a tub to wash them with detergent and water, the last measure to protect herself from the virus she spent the day combatting in others.

In March 2020, Lt. Col. Susan Gutlove, a clinical nurse for the 910th Medical Squadron and a nurse practitioner in the civilian sector, came to Youngstown Air Reserve Station on a monthlong order to help provide leadership during the initial pandemic response. On April 20, she and 14 other Reserve Citizen Airmen from the 910th Medical Squadron were asked to serve in New York City, adding to the three 910th Airmen who had already deployed to help in the virus fight. Within 48 hours, the team was outfitted with N95 masks and ready to depart YARS. Susan Gutlove spent her first week in the Jacob J. Javits Convention Center, one of three military-run hospitals in New York City.

According to a press release by New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, “The Javits” has 760,000 square feet of flexible exhibition space which was converted with the help of the National Guard into a 1,200-bed medical facility in late March. Should the need arise, the field hospital has the ability to expand to nearly 3,000 beds, rivaling New York-Presbyterian Hospital’s 2,600 bed capacity. During the month it was used, it housed more than 1,000 overflow patients. Although it is no longer serving that function due to the subsequent drop in COVID-19 cases, it remains assembled and ready as a precaution should another major outbreak occur.  

“Javits was tough,” said Susan Gutlove. “I don’t really know if you can ease your way into patient care for people with COVID-19, but that was exactly what Javits was for us. We were able to ease into putting on all our personal protective equipment, like all the masks, protective gowns and eye protection.”

When the Gutloves arrived in New York, COVID-19 was relatively new to health care practitioners. Those just entering the fray were learning to identify the Virus’ symptoms, how to treat it and the best ways to stop its spread. It challenged volunteers to remain vigilant and flexible and for people around the nation to come together and work as a team.

After the closure of the Javits Center, the medical professionals of YARS were relocated to other areas of need, with Susan Gutlove moving to a hospital in Queens to work on a floor entirely dedicated to non-COVID-19  patients.

Micaela got to New York a week before her mother’s arrival on a contract with New York City Hospitals + Health, an integrated health care system of 11 hospitals, and has spent her time working in Harlem. She first started thinking about offering her professional skills to the people of NYC in February when she received a text message asking for volunteers.

“I always wanted to do travel nursing,” Micaela said. “At that point I figured it was either go big or go home. I actually quit my previous job in order to do this.”

When Micaela first decided to join the fight to retake New York City, she was nervous about how her parents would take the news. Believing her mother and father would be against her decision, she was shocked at how supportive they were of the idea.

“My parents have always supported me in everything that I’ve done, but I honestly expected a different reaction when I told them my decision,” said Micaela. “To know they not only support me but that I can share this experience with my mom has really brought us closer together.”

Although the mother-daughter duo has been in New York City, their demanding schedules have given them few moments together.

The Gutloves said that although their schedules don’t really match up and they have only seen each other twice since arriving in New York City, it is a blessing when they do. Spending time together gives them a chance to process everything they go through while on the clock. Beyond their familial ties, Susan and Micaela Gutlove are able to use their shared profession as a further outlet of support.

“Taking care of a COVID patient is nothing like we learned in any academic institution,” said Susan Gutlove. “These long hours have been draining. So being able to come back to my room, curl up in bed and call my daughter to connect and share our experience has been extremely helpful.”

The Gutloves said what is most heartbreaking for them is that all the patients they are caring for have been completely blindsided by their illness.

“One day they are fine, another day they have a cough and fever and by late evening they are in the hospital with a tube down their throat,” said Susan Gutlove. “It all happens so fast. The experience is completely different compared to what we are used to. A complete 180-degree turn.”

Despite the challenges, precautions and persistence of COVID-19, the Gutloves see the tide beginning to turn.

“Things are getting better,” said Susan. “Way better than they were at the end of March and early April. With the closure of Javits and the departure of the hospital ship, Comfort, intensive care units are still busy, but we are seeing much of the hospital's staff returning from quarantine. Things are definitely starting to get better though.”

Susan Gutlove has always wanted to help people as a medical professional. The sciences came easy to her and she recalls the satisfaction her mother had as an assistant in a nursing home. After nearly three decades in the field, she isn’t turning back.

“The praise and stories my mother came home with each day endeared me to the medical profession,” said Susan Gutlove. “It made me feel as though this was the road to take as well. I didn’t need an epiphany or anything. It was just something I gravitated toward.”

Micaela Gutlove also found her desire to become a nurse from her parents and their satisfaction in the field. But a mission trip with her father, Dr. David Gutlove, to the Dominican Republic is what truly sealed the deal.

“I was able to help out in the hospital,” said Micaela Gutlove. “I was around a lot of nurses and doctors while on the trip. As a high school student, I even got to scrub in for surgeries! Having that experience really drew me in.”

As Micaela settles into her hotel room after an exhausting day, her cellphone, now free from its protective bag, rings. It’s her mother who just finished her own 12-hour shift at a hospital in Queens. They’re both nurses. They both volunteered to serve in New York. They’re both Americans selflessly working to save American lives. But for a few moments on the phone before going to sleep in preparation of another day at war against a vicious virus, they’re just a mother and daughter supporting each other through their shared experience.

People wonder if a person’s character is a product of nature or nurture. If it something that an individual is taught over time or if it something a person is born with. The Gutloves provide evidence it comes from a little bit of both.