Newville native Olivia Brandt was born to serve others, and she felt a calling to treat COVID-19 patients in the epicenter of the pandemic.
Brandt, 26, spent more than a month working as a physician assistant at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, New York, and saw the effects the disease can have on people of all ages.
The 2011 Big Spring High School grad, who now lives in Colorado, quit her job at an outpatient orthopedic practice to fly to New York and help lighten the load for the hospital’s staff that has been overwhelmed by the number of cases they are treating.
“I wasn’t happy in my position in Colorado, and I saw that a COVID crisis group was hiring healthcare professionals to go to New York,” Brandt noted. “I felt compelled to do it. At that time, my company was asking people to take voluntary furloughs. However, the day before I was supposed to leave, my boss said they no longer needed anyone to furlough, and if I still wanted to go to New York, I had to quit. So I did. He wasn’t supportive of my decision to go, and my heart wasn’t fully there. That was the final nail in the coffin.”
On the frontlines
In March, Dr. Colleen Smith, an emergency room doctor at Elmhurst, went to the New York Times to give an inside look at the battle the healthcare workers there are facing. She also issued a plea for the proper protective equipment and tools they need to help treat the many COVID-19 patients entering the hospital.
At the time, Smith said they were seeing 400 or more people a day for various ailments, including the coronavirus, when they typically see about 200 a day.
She also said a number of staff members became ill from constant exposure to the virus, and patients who weren’t showing typical symptoms, but still tested positive for COVID-19.
Brandt, the daughter of Karen Brandt and Jay Brandt, said she started out in the Emergency Room at Elmhurst, and got to work with Smith.
“I felt very fortunate because when we had arrived, that’s when NYC had already made the news. I worked alongside the doctor who went to the news. She did what she had to do at the time. It was an outcry for help. They didn’t have PPE, there was not enough staff, the hospital was completely overwhelmed. By the time I got there, they were receiving staff and an abundance of PPE, most of which was donated. There were plenty of face shields, surgical masks, gloves. We did have to use N95s sparingly. We had to use one a day, which I was comfortable with because I didn’t want to take my mask off. I also kept the same face shield for a few weeks, which was fine. But, there were enough gowns, etc. to go around when I was there. A week or two prior, there was nothing and they were extremely exposed to the virus.”
Brandt described the chaos she entered when she arrived.
“It was an absolute warzone, initially. It was as bad as you could imagine it to be,” she recalled. “I saw it from all aspects. In the ER, we were required to make the call whether patients met the criteria to be admitted to an inpatient unit, observe them for a few hours in the ER and send them home, or send them home. There were a few lucky times where patients were stable and their symptoms were very mild with no oxygen requirements, and we were able to give them instructions to self-quarantine at home, and discharge them. Still, some came in severely ill, some requiring oxygen as soon as they had arrived. Those patients were admitted to the inpatient unit. I really got to see the whole disease process through.”
Brandt said within a week they were able to empty out the ER, and she moved upstairs because the inpatient floors were still really overwhelmed.
Brandt said she managed COVID patients from that point until she left NYC on May 2. Her initial contract was for three weeks, but she noted at the three-week mark, she was not ready to leave.
“I wasn’t ready to leave the patients I had been caring for for two weeks straight,” she added.
Brandt said admitted patients mostly all had oxygen requirements, with the worst cases needing ventilators.
“Unfortunately, many patients passed,” she said. “It was sometimes hard to predict. I had patients of all ages. The youngest patient I took care of was in his 30s. He ended up doing great. But, there were patients in their 40s with no prior health conditions that ended up dying. I had a man in his early 60s with no prior health conditions, and was extremely stable. I took care of him for two weeks straight. The last day I took care of him, his fever spiked, his oxygen requirement increased and he later passed away. That was hard. I called his family every day to let them know how he was doing, and then to have to give them that news was just devastating.”
Brandt said some people felt her decision to voluntarily travel to the epicenter of a deadly virus was crazy and too risky.
“I don’t really feel that way. If you’re in health care, that’s your job. It was second nature for me to go and do that line of work.
It was always in the back of my mind that I could get sick. You see those people in the hospital, knowing that could happen to you. That’s very scary. But, I was born to serve. When you get there, it’s about more than just filling some role. I felt like there was a real need, I felt like I was truly making a difference. I didn’t know what to expect. I was hoping to make a difference. I felt if I helped one person, that would be great. I walked away with so much more than that. I was challenged, I was pushed. There were very long days where you walk out with your head hung between your shoulders, feeling defeated. Then, when you walk outside, and everyone is cheering you on, including firefighters and first responders, it’s very uplifting.”
Brandt said her experience in New York was life changing.
“I learned the true power of teamwork and camaraderie, and what can happen when those two things come together. I also made friendships that I hope will last. I was there for patients on their deathbed, and was able to cheer them on when they left the hospital a few weeks later. For the patients that didn’t make it, I feel very fortunate that I was able to be there for them, whether it was to hold their hand or FaceTime with their families. It was a very humbling experience that has changed me forever. People asked if I was stressed that I didn’t have a job to come back to. But, when you are there making that kind of a difference, I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be, doing what I was born to do.”
Brandt said she was tested for the virus before she left New York because of her constant exposure to it, even though she felt fine. The antigen test came back negative. She is also hoping to get the antibody test this week to see if she had an immune response to the virus.
Brandt said she grew up knowing she wanted to work in medicine, and while at Big Spring, she learned about the physician assistant’s role in medicine. From there, she had her mind set on becoming one.
“For a while, it was just figuring out exactly what I wanted to do in health care,” she said. “It was more so a passion to provide for others, helping them improve their quality of life, healing them. It’s fulfilling when a career and a passion come together. And I truly found my role as a PA in health care.”
She earned her undergraduate degree in health science and biology from James Madison University in Virginia, and completed clinical hours in the pediatric oncology unit at the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk while applying to grad school to become a PA.
“That experience was so challenging and so rewarding at the same time. It reminds me of this experience in NYC. The experience at the children’s hospital has always been a motivating factor for me. Now I am working to do what I have always dreamed of, and worked so hard to be doing. PA school is very challenging. The whole time, I kept thinking, ‘I am doing this for my patients, and the children I got to help take care of.’ I still keep in touch with many of them and their families. That’s just reassurance that I am doing what I am meant to be doing.”
Right now, Brandt said she is hoping to find a job in pediatrics in Colorado.
“I’m going to take my time and find something that my heart is in, and I feel like I truly belong,” she added.
Brandt said she is very thankful for growing up in a small town like Newville, and the support she received from Big Spring.
“I was always taught to set my eyes on the horizon for what I am possibly capable of in the future, and always taught to dream big,” she said.
Brandt, who played field hockey throughout high school, said it all started with great support from her family and her hometown.
Her mother, Karen, said she wasn’t shocked at all when Olivia told her she was thinking about going to New York.
“When she called, at the time she was just thinking about it,” Karen said. “But, I knew she had probably already made up her mind. She was making one of the most selfless decisions she has ever made, and God put her where she needed to be.”
Karen said Olivia always wanted to be in the medical field and was always a dedicated student.
“She always had a serving heart,” she added. “Whether as a CNA in a nursing home, her undergrad at children’s hospital in Norfolk, or clinical hours to get into grad school. She worked with dying children, comforting families. Then got into grad school. She graduated about a year ago now.”
Karen added that while Olivia is very giving, she also has a very adventurous heart.
“She moved out to Denver, and hasn’t been out there quite a year yet. Then this happened! So, I really wasn’t surprised.”
Karen said she limited her communication with Olivia while she was in New York because she knew Olivia was working very, very long hours.
“We did a lot of texting and scheduled FaceTimes,” she said. “Of course, before she left, I had a lot of questions, and wanted to know what agency she was working for. I wanted her to call me as soon as she got there, and if she had the proper protective equipment when she got to the hospital! I was being a typical mom, for sure!”
Karen said this isn’t the first time she has watched one of her children follow their dreams. Olivia’s brother, Samuel, a 2009 BSHS grad, served with the Marines during two deployments to Afghanistan.
“I wasn’t really worried as much about her safety,” Karen admitted. “I felt very comfortable with that. I was more concerned with the impact that she was seeing on a day-to-day basis.”
Karen said both Olivia and Samuel have always had very serving hearts, which were further molded at Big Spring.
“I think both of my kids have always been grateful of where they come from, and I think they got a good foundation there,” she added.
Superintendent Dr. Richard Fry wrote in an email to The Valley Times-Star, “Olivia was a tremendous student at Big Spring in all facets. She continued to push herself following graduation, and I’m not at all surprised at her willingness to step up and support frontline efforts in the epicenter of this challenge. She certainly embodies our motto of ‘Ever Always Strong.’”
Olivia said the overwhelming amount of support she received from back home and the residents of New York City helped her through the last several weeks.
“I wasn’t expecting that, whatsoever,” she added. “When you see the things that we saw, it’s truly devastating. But the support got us through. Whether it was people back home sending me packages or calling to make sure I’m OK, or the community in New York City showing us support, day in and day out. Making us food, holding up signs, cheering us on. I can’t thank everybody enough for that.”
Olivia noted while it was great having everyone’s support, she and the traveling healthcare workers aren’t the true heroes.
“The true heroes are the house employees at these hospitals,” she said. “This is the nightmare they have faced for months now. There is no going home to Colorado. They are living and breathing this, day in and day out. They have much more of the weight than we did.”