Family nurse practitioner grad on front lines of pandemic’s epicenter in NYC

PITTSBURGH — Abbigail “Abby” Linton has had an affinity for New York City since she was a child.   

“As the cliché goes, I love New York!” she said. “I always have loved visiting this magnificent city. One of my uncles lived in New Jersey, and he would often bring us to the Big Apple.” 

With NYC nurses, doctors and health care workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, Linton felt the pull of this city she has grown to love, and began looking for a way to help. 

“Whether it is taking care of a patient who is critically ill, responding to an emergency or volunteering in third-world countries on medical missions, I am always ready,” said the 2020 graduate of the family nurse practitioner program at Carlow University. “I felt so helpless. Watching the news would just devastate me. I kept thinking if the roles were reversed, if this hit Pittsburgh as hard as it hit NYC, I would be begging for help, pleading for it. That’s when it occurred to me that I could help.” 

In her six-year nursing career, Linton worked in some diverse environments, including as a travel nurse. She approached her former travel nurse company on a Saturday about the possibility of working in New York, and by the following Tuesday she had a contract. Her first shift in New York was on April 30. 

“I am currently working on a COVID rehabilitation and hospice unit” that was formerly an inpatient psychiatric unit, she said. “There are some quirky setups due to it being a psych unit, but the hospital did a pretty great job getting it ready for action.” 

Linton said her experience thus far has been emotionally and physically exhausting. 

“I have never seen a virus take so much from so many people,” said Linton, who has worked with cancer patients and has experience with acutely ill, immunocompromised patients and viral infections. “The debilitation that COVID causes, the families it affects, it has been eye-opening. I have seen young, otherwise healthy people learning to walk again, regaining their strength. These patients go through extensive physical and occupational therapy on top of continuing medical treatments in order to get strong enough and healthy enough to hopefully be discharged. Some of these people have been admitted to the hospital for months now.” 

Of course, COVID-19 has not just made more people sick, but also put their lives at risk – hence the hospice and palliative care component to the unit Linton works on. 

“I have always had this experience as an oncology nurse,” she says. “Helping people during their last days or weeks of life is such an honor and privilege. End-of-life care has always been a passion of mine. But this is different; they are not surrounded by their loved ones, there are no visitors allowed. Instead, we rely on technology to help fill that void.” 

It’s not just patients and their families who can benefit from Linton’s experience surrounding end-of-life issues. Deborah Mitchum, DNP, ANP, WHMP, director of the graduate nurse practitioner programs at Carlow University, says Linton has shared her knowledge with current students by developing a case study to help them practice giving devastating news to patients and families.   

“It was an ‘above and beyond’ measure of selflessness, and so typical of Abby,” said Mitchum, who describes Linton as “one of the best and brightest” in the program. “She is the epitome of why we teach and what we hope to see from Carlow graduates. Abby is a nurse practitioner graduate that lives our values.” 

Giving bad news to patients and families can be daunting emotionally. Linton says her role as a nurse has always been to be a patient advocate and to treat her patients how she would want her own loved ones treated. Dealing with COVID-19 patients has solidified those concepts for her.  

“I am sometimes the only person that the patients may see for 12 hours until another nurse takes my place. That is a dismal feeling,” Linton said. “My role here is as my role has always been, but now I fill multiple roles with fewer resources. Physically and emotionally, it has already had an impact on me and forever changed me.” 

Tony Reola, who met Abby during the first course in Carlow’s nurse practitioner program and became her friend and study partner, has come to appreciate just how special a nurse Linton is. 

“She is so committed to her patients and does whatever she can to ease their suffering,” he said. “She is always challenging herself to be better and to help where she can. She is truly an inspiring nurse, and I’m so proud that she is doing what she can to help in New York during this crisis. She is selfless, and they are lucky to have her.” 

Linton says each day’s shift is drastically different. Some shifts have been better than others, but she chalks that up to the same thing that any nurse may experience while providing bedside nursing care. Even though her co-workers say they have seen improvements, there are still shortages of ICU beds at times, and personal protective equipment is still subject to intense rationing. 

“I would not say I feel better or worse about the situation. I am still in shock that this is all happening. I have so many emotions about the whole situation. I am happy I am in the position to help, grateful for this experience, but I also feel intense anger, frustration, fear, pride and love,” Linton said. “Nursing school does not prepare you for a global pandemic; nothing does. I do not believe becoming a nurse implies that this is what ‘we signed up for.’ Nobody signed up for this.” 

The support that she and her co-workers have received – every day at 7 p.m., New York lets loose with people cheering, yelling and making noise as a show of support for health care workers – has brought her to tears almost every day. 

“I did not become a nurse to be a ‘hero’,” she said. “From my experience, health care workers are some of the most selfless human beings and never really recognized in the public eye with such emphasis until now. I became a nurse to help people and to leave this world a little bit better than how I found it.” 

She has a message for her family, friends and fellow 2020 graduates: “From the bottom of my heart, I thank my parents, my brother, my fiancé Geoff, all of my amazing friends, co-workers and fellow nurses, for your love and support. Thank you for the kind words of encouragement, letting me vent and loving me for all of my craziness. I am eternally grateful for your encouragement. Congratulations to Carlow University’s class of 2020. I am so honored to be a part of the family nurse practitioner program graduates.” 

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