By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski
Joshua Strickland witnessed the horrors of war, as a soldier with the U.S. Army with missions in Kandahar City, Afghanistan.
The Bayou Bandits singer wasn’t ready for what he saw in Bergen County, New Jersey, when he was hired as a travel nurse on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Hell yeah I was scared,” says Strickland, a med surg RN in the Valley. “It’s a different type of fear. A lot of folks are asking me if it was like Afghanistan. In a way it was; in a way it wasn’t.
“In Afghanistan, I was scared for my life. There were people out there trying to actively kill us. That’s what war is. I was waiting for an IED (improvised explosive device) to go off. In Afghanistan, you know there are IEDs everywhere. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda put them everywhere.
“In this situation, you’re going into the battlefield, which is the hospital, and you’re dealing with direct patient care—confirmed COVID-positive patients. Every time you go in that room, you worry. ‘Is my mask on tight enough?’ ‘Are my eyes protected enough?’ ‘Is this going to be the moment I catch this virus?’”
Bergen County is just across the Hudson River from the Bronx. Strickland was there for a short time. Since he returned to his Phoenix home, he’s been in quarantine, unable to hug or kiss his family of four children with his wife, Melit, a telemetry nurse. He was going to stay in a hotel or RV, but Melit asked him to stay in an upstairs bedroom.
“With COVID, its incubation period is one to 14 days,” he says. “Symptoms are generally starting to peak by day five in the vast majority of cases. You just never know.”
Strickland was contracted to work for four to six weeks at $10,000 a week. He was cut short when the curve started to flatten on the East Coast.
“As a society, it’s great that the curve is starting to flatten,” Strickland says, “That means there are less admissions to the emergency department. Less people are coming and there’s a lesser onset of new cases.
“As a travel nurse, you’re the first to get canceled. You have to think of it from a business standpoint. They don’t want to pay out $10,000 a week for someone who doesn’t live there, who isn’t in their community, when they can pay a permanent employee their normal wages and reallocate them. In the nursing world, thousands of RNs like myself went to help out and a lot of them flew to New York City, got off the plane and they were immediately canceled. They had put down $2,300 a month for a condo in New York.”
Strickland has the “utmost respect” for the nurses and doctors who are working.
“They’ve been working their butts off,” he says. “In New York and New Jersey, some of them, unfortunately, have worked 24-hour shifts. There were nurses who wouldn’t come into work because they were scared, or they were protesting the limited number of PPE (personal protective equipment) and things like that.
“I have the utmost respect, because they’ve been dealing with COVID since day one and they’ve been working 16- to 19-hour shifts. In the normal world, that wouldn’t be legal. The rules have changed.”
On Strickland’s floor, there was one N95 mask per shift, per person. He had to use a face shield or goggles. He brought his own PPE gear.
“One N95 is supposed to be only worn in one patient’s room and then thrown away,” he adds. “Some of these places are using them for three to four days. They lose their seal. You have to shave your face to create an air-tight seal. I brought Gorilla tape in my bag in case I ran out of masks. I could tape it on there.”
The return home
A Louisiana native, Strickland is happy to be back in the Valley, where the Bayou Bandits’ notoriety is bubbling. He tested negative for COVID-19, but he’s weary. He says about 70% of COVID testing is accurate and 30% is inconclusive or a false negative. To prepare for his next test, in 14 days, he’s monitoring his symptoms and downing vitamin C, vitamin D and zinc to boost his immune system.
When asked about the discomfort of the COVID-19 test, which involves swabbing the sinuses, he prefaces it with “most guys are wimps.”
“To me, it was horrible,” he says. “When we swab patients for the flu, we do a nasal swab. With COVID, it feels like it’s in your brain. It’s way up there, deep in your sinuses. They have to hold it there for 10 seconds. It burns.”
Still, Strickland is nervous about getting COVID. After all, it’s unpredictable.
“You can have a 100-year-old grandma who had stage-four breast cancer, who had a kidney transplant and she can survive it,” Strickland says.
“Then, you have a 24-year-old kid who doesn’t have a preexisting health condition and he dies. The viral progression in the lungs is so rapid. It’s so fast. A patient could be fine now, but in three hours they could be gasping for air. I’m here to tell you in New York and New Jersey, we’re learning things by trial and error. At this point, so many people are dying from it. They’re dying in the waiting room because the whole hospital is COVID. There’s nowhere to put them. They’re being treated in hallways. It’s an absolute nightmare.”
If there’s one good thing that’s come out of it, it’s new music.
“I have four new songs I’m recording once this quarantine is done,” Strickland says. “We’re anxiously awaiting coming back harder than ever.”