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'I am no hero. I am not ready to die': A New York nurse reveals the anguish, fear, and heartbreak of fighting the coronavirus pandemic
KP Mendoza has been a nurse for less than two years, but the horrors of the...KP Mendoza has been a nurse for less than two years, but the horrors of the coronavirus drove him to write a will. He is 24 years old. As part of the medical team at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City, which has experienced the nation's worst outbreak, Mendoza believes healthcare workers need protective gear — not hero worship. Having seen patients suffering, Mendoza is concerned by people pushing to reopen the economy and worries that the lack of social distancing will cause an increase in COVID-19 cases. He believes the United States government failed its people, healthcare workers included, with its haphazard and lackluster response to the pandemic. Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories. KP Mendoza was running in Central Park last week when he was flooded by exhaustion, anxiety, guilt, and frustration. As the relentless pressure of being a nurse battling the pandemic in New York bore down on him, Mendoza began thinking about what could happen if he contracted the coronavirus. So, at 24, he decided to draft a will. Mendoza is young and healthy. But treating COVID-19 patients, wearing the same N95 mask for hours and even days at a time, forced him to think seriously about dying. It's all the worse that the US, he said, was woefully unprepared for a pandemic and millions of people have since moved on to dismissing it as a hoax. Mendoza expressed this maelstrom of emotions on Facebook. His gut-wrenching words have since been shared over 132,000 times, with people thanking him, offering prayers, and lifting him up. Overwhelmed by the attention and praise, Mendoza, a surgical and transplant ICU nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital, said that he stands by the first sentence of his post: "I am no hero. I am not ready to die." Having graduated from New York University in 2018, Mendoza, who considers himself a "baby nurse," told Business Insider that he is not looking to be a "savior" or a "martyr." "This is my first job, and I didn't sign up to die because I wasn't protected enough," he said. "I'm not here to just mitigate my own death. I'm here to do good work and to go home and come back the next day to continue doing good work." As of Thursday, New York has confirmed more than 263,700 coronavirus cases and over 19,400 deaths. Nurses around the United States have been calling on the Trump administration to increase the production of personal protective equipment (PPE) and ramp up testing so they're not caring for patients in unsafe working conditions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report earlier this month saying 9,200 healthcare workersnationwide have gotten coronavirus and 27 have died of COVID-19. "I've been shocked by the US's response to the virus," Mendoza said. "I didn't think it would be so lacking." 'My goal is to save them, and I can't' With elective surgeries having been called off, Mendoza hasn't seen anyone other than a COVID-19 patient since early March. One nurse usually takes care of two patients a day at Mount Sinai, he said, but the influx of patients from mid-March into April increased that tally to three patients. Mendoza is an Illinois native and the son of two nurses. He was drawn to medicine based on the belief that there's no "greater gift you can give to a person than their health." But when the pandemic hit, he started waking up sweaty, with an elevated heart rate, and filled with dread, as if his body knew what awaited him at work. "Pre-pandemic, I used to tell myself when I left the hospital that I made a difference," he said. "Now I just feel like I went to work and prolonged my patients' lives." Several patients' experiences have stuck with Mendoza: A woman in her 30s reminded him of his sister. A pregnant COVID-19 patient underwent an emergency C-section that saved her baby, but then she died. There was also a newly retired MTA worker who was counting down the days to his family's South African vacation; he and his wife were hospitalized around the same time but he was sedated when she died. "It makes me feel like I'm not doing nearly enough for these people because ultimately my goal is to save them, and I can't — not even with all of the medicines in the world, not even with the most brilliant doctors at Mount Sinai. It's completely disheartening to know that what you're doing doesn't change much," he said. 'How do you prioritize your needs when all your needs are a priority?' Swamped by this feeling of inadequacy, Mendoza turned to social media after "a particularly bad week," recalling how one of his patients nearly died at the end of his shift. "Sometimes, I get so busy that patients lie in their own stool longer than I would like to admit," he wrote on Facebook. "How do you find time to clean your patient when your other patient's heart rate just reached [zero] next door?" Mendoza rushed first to help the patient who was flatlining. "How do you prioritize your needs when all your needs are a priority?" he wondered. He also described the gut-wrenching moment when a woman, who thought her mother was stable, called to check on her only to learn that her condition had deteriorated dramatically. "So, I reluctantly but gently told her that if I stopped the IV pump right now, her mother would die," Mendoza wrote on Facebook. "I had to be blunt — why lie or sugarcoat what is happening? Uncontrollably and expectedly, she began to weep. "I have auscultated the sounds of a dying heart. But, never before have I heard a dying heart through the phone." Unfortunately, that's all too common now, Mendoza said, since family members aren't allowed to see their relatives because COVID-19 is highly contagious. So, nurses like him help connect grieving families over FaceTime — even when it's time to say goodbye. "I've had to give bad news before, but when families are at the bedside, they can see that their loved one is not doing so well," he said. "But now, you don't see anything so that news causes extreme distress." Healthcare workers are in dire need of more PPE In Mendoza's role, it's common for patients and families to heap thanks on him. And during the pandemic, that appreciation has justly been turned up several notches. Every day at 7 p.m. in New York, people clap, cheer, honk, and ring bells in honor of healthcare workers. But even as they lift his spirits, Mendoza becomes incensed by the public's wartime analogies that compare hospitals to the "front line" of the pandemic and medical workers to "heroes." People are either very sick or dying when they go to the hospital, making them the "last resort — not the first choice," Mendoza said. This is particularly true in New York where people are avoiding overrun facilities because they lack faith that they'll get high-quality treatment, and are afraid of catching the virus in a hospital setting. Also, he added, "You would not think about telling a soldier, 'You're wearing too much to go into battle, you should have less' or 'Maybe you don't need that bulletproof vest, maybe you don't need this helmet.' That's why I say, don't call me a hero. Instead, show your support by believing us when we say we need much more PPE." In terms of PPE, Mendoza said he has enough gloves and medical shoe covers, and just got a new face shield after using the older one for 17 days. The gowns, though available, tear easily and are not completely waterproof. Masks, however, continue to be a pain point. In the early days of the pandemic, Mendoza used one N95 mask for his entire 12-plus hour shift. That's been the case since the second week of April. He's taken to placing a piece of tape on the bridge of his nose, where the mask hurts the most. But in early April, a shortage of medical supplies forced him to re-use the same disposable mask for four days. He sanitized it with bleach and put the mask in a biohazard ziplock bag, which was then placed in a brown paper bag with his name and a smiley face, so it could be stored overnight, he says. "The brown paper bag is a ridiculous, feeble attempt to pretend as if we're keeping our masks clean and to make us more comfortable with reusing them," he said. Researchers have warned that the coronavirus can last for seven days on the surface of masks. Mendoza thinks he'll eventually get the virus — if he doesn't have it already Given his proximity to a hearty virus that has infected 2.64 million people worldwide and more than 842,600 people in the US alone, Mendoza is making concerted efforts to protect himself. At the end of every shift, he changes his clothes and drops off his scrubs to be laundered at the hospital before removing his shoe covers with gloved hands. Then the gloves come off and he uses hand sanitizer. After biking home, he strips as soon as he enters his apartment, puts his streetwear in the washer and his lunch box in the sink, and makes a beeline for the shower. But Mendoza's now resigned to the fact that he's either had COVID-19, currently has it, or will get it in the future. "As valiant as my efforts may be, I probably have the virus somewhere in my apartment right now," said Mendoza. He takes solace in the fact that he is "unlikely" to succumb to the coronavirus because he is young, healthy, and has no underlying health conditions, but knows that he faces an "exponentially higher" risk because of his work. It's this grim reality that pushed him to write a "skeleton" will, which has yet to be notarized but gives his "meager savings" to his parents, his plants to his mother, and postcards from his travels to different family members based on the thoughts he penned in them. "Children aren't supposed to die before their parents," he said, "so I imagine myself breaking my parents' hearts irreparably if I succumb to this virus and that's something that motivated me to really start thinking about and hashing out these details." While Mendoza faces one "painful truth" about the virus after another, it's baffling for him to see people swarming beaches in Florida, Kentucky pastors complaining about canceled services, and people protesting coronavirus lockdowns and wanting to return to work in Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota, and elsewhere. 'At what cost are people wanting to reopen the economy?' Despite the grueling nature of his job, Mendoza agreed that he is fortunate to have work and not be worried about how he will pay his bills or keep a roof over his head. "I know people are suffering but what concerns me is the influx of coronavirus cases that might occur should restrictions be lifted too early," he said. "So my question is: At what cost are people wanting to reopen the economy?" The governors of Georgia, Floria, South Carolina, and Tennessee are planning to reopen as early as this week and demonstrators across the nation have been spotted toting signs, saying, "I need a haircut," "Give me liberty or give me COVID-19," and "End the virus not the economy." Meanwhile, healthcare workers have been excoriated, Mendoza said, with people saying "You signed up for it" or "You should be used to death," while conspiracy theorists claim that the pandemic is merely a hoax. "If people dying doesn't convince you that safety and social distancing are important, then frankly, I don't know what will," he said. The way Mendoza sees it, the coronavirus also exposed deep cracks in the US medical system, including high healthcare costs, insufficient medical resources, and unequal access to insurance. It also put on garish display how marginalized communities and people of color are bearing the brunt of this disease. He also expressed keen disappointment in organizations like the CDC "that are meant to set standards of excellence and standards of protection for you as a healthcare worker," but instead created faulty coronavirus tests and then provided guidance on the use of face masks — only to walk it back. "It just makes you wonder, 'Who is protecting me?'' Mendoza asked. "We're the ones protecting people from the virus and treating them, but, as a healthcare worker, who's treating me? If it's not the government, if it's not the CDC, then who?"Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: Inside London during COVID-19 lockdown