‘This is my purpose in life’: Bronx nurse describes the horrors of the front line

Nurse Camille Culbengan of Morris Park
Photo courtesy of Camille Culbengan

Seeing patients die daily, being short on personal protective equipment (PPE), sadness and exhaustion are all things Camille Culbengan has experienced as a nurse.

In recognition of National Nurses Week, the Bronx Times spoke with Culbengan about battling COVID-19 on the front line.

Culbengan, 26, of Morris Park, works at NY Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital in Manhattan. During the pandemic she has been helping in the emergency room and seeing things she never imagined she would ever deal with.

She stressed that many people still aren’t taking COVID-19 seriously. New Yorkers are walking outside without masks and not following social distancing rules, which she shared infuriates her. In the past, Culbengan has wrapped up bodies and seen people say goodbye to loved ones and questioned why people still won’t listen to the government.

“How do you prepare for a worldwide pandemic,” she said. “How do you prepare for the emotional mental exhaustion? No one takes it seriously unless their family or friend is in the hospital.”

Nurse Camille Culbengan of Morris Park Photo courtesy of Camille Culbengan

Culbengan recalled how she has held the hands of people as they were intubated and as they took their last breath. She also remembers working 12-hour shifts, three to four days a week and witnessing all of this.

What makes matters worse is the fact that they are short on much-needed PPE and are being exposed to the virus daily. She and her colleagues wear the same gowns and face masks constantly, around thousands patients who have the disease or those that are awaiting test results.

The disease has killed nurses and has even led an ER doctor at her hospital to die by suicide.

“We are really the only thing that’s keeping these people from dying,” she stressed. This is what my co-workers and I are dealing with. We are scared because we don’t know what we’re up against,” she remarked, adding that it’s difficult to expect health care professions to treat people and not have the proper protection.

Photo courtesy of Camille Culbengan

While she shared that the experience has been emotionally draining, it has not discouraged her from putting 100 percent of her effort into the job and risking her own life to save others.

Four years ago when she first became a nurse, she had never imagined that she would have seen so much death and despair in her career.

Culbengan urges everyone to stay home unless they are an essential worker, follow social distancing and wear masks. According to Culbengan, she feels like she had COVID at some point, but she just never experienced symptoms.

“If they walk a mile in my shoes for even just a shift in the ER, they would understand why they should stay home,” she explained. “I have never regretted my decision in being a nurse. This is my purpose in life. I save people, help people and make a difference.”

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