In April, two women traveled from Arkansas to New York, part of a cavalry of health care workers who had decided to work in the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. While their actions were nothing short of heroic, these two women are particularly noteworthy – Uchenna Onyia-Murphy and Ona Onyia are mother and daughter who both happen to be nurses.
Originally from Nigeria, Murphy, 49, is the mother of three, with the two back home worrying constantly about her safety. For the past three weeks, Murphy has been working tirelessly as a nurse practitioner at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens.
Fortunately she is accompanied by daughter Onyia, 23, a registered nurse who graduated from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences School of Nursing in 2018. The outstanding mother and daughter team chose to work at Elmhurst Hospital, which has been called “the epicenter of the epicenter” of the coronavirus outbreak.
On their decision to go to New York, Onyia said, “Our desire to help triumphed our fears. Seeing how understaffed and overwhelmed New York hospitals were, we wanted to help and learn so we can help our hospitals back home if things got out of control.”
With over 350,000 cases, New York is considered the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States. Queens has more than 58,000 of those confirmed cases, making the county the “epicenter of the epicenter” of the virus outbreak. According to NY Mayor Bill De Blasio, “Elmhurst has borne the brunt more than any other hospital in the city.”
Working at the epicenter of the crisis has been stressful, to say the least, for mother and daughter. Murphy said, “Every day you got into work you don’t know if you’re going to come out ok, you don’t know if you’re going to have COVID and survive it.”
Onyia shared, “I feel like I’ve seen more deaths in my 21 nights than I’ve ever seen in my entire nursing career. People going from talking to being put on the ventilator within minutes. People are dying alone because no family is allowed in the hospital.”
There have been other challenges as well. The two have had to adjust to a new job in a new city. As health care workers in the epicenter of the pandemic, they have to deal with language barriers as patients come from all over the world.
At the height of the crisis, patients steadily streamed into a strained intensive care unit. Onyia said, “I came in at the peak. Everything was pretty rough. There were moments when it was so overwhelming. But just having my mom with me has been really helpful.”
The two work opposite shifts at Elmhurst, with Onyia starting her overnight shift at 7 pm, at which time Murphy ends her day shift. They both work 12-hour shifts, sometimes continuously for six days. On work days they only have time to catch up for a few minutes at dusk outside the hospital.
They live in the same hotel, but on different floors. On the rare moments when their days off overlap, they take the time to sit in each other’s rooms, pray, order take out, or do yoga together.
Such are typical days in the epicenter of the pandemic. But moms still have the energy to be moms. “The other day my mom hand-washed my scrubs because I was so tired that I didn’t want to go to the laundry mat, she came into my room and hand-washed my scrubs for me,” said Onyia.
Mother and daughter agree that the experience has been traumatizing, but they knew what they signed up for. Murphy shared, “I’m thinking am I gonna survive this, am I going to go down with my daughter at the same time it’s like whoa we’ve made history together girl.”
Both have learned valuable lessons from working in the epicenter of the world’s most devastating public health crisis. Onyia stated, “It has been mentally and physically exhausting, but rewarding in so many ways. This virus will be around for a while, and this experience has fully prepared me to help my home state if it has outbreaks. I feel like I can work anywhere after this.”
After completing their grueling 21-day assignment, Onyia posted on Facebook, “I am also so thankful to be working alongside a team of resilient, brilliant and selfless healthcare workers who flew in from all over the country to help NYC fight this virus. The teamwork we have out here is unreal. We’re always looking out for each other, cause we rely on one another to get through this. This experience continues to change me everyday and I’m so thankful to God for keeping me healthy and continuing to give me the strength to assist out here.”
“I know that it is difficult for those that are not affected personally by this to fully understand. But it is very much real. I didn’t realize how bad it was until I got here. It is a very difficult and uncertain time for all of us but thank you everyone for continuing to practice social distancing and assisting to flatten the curve,” said Onyia.
The remarkable mother and daughter team have extended their stay in New York for another six weeks, determined to assist the epicenter of the pandemic get through the crisis.