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County physician assistant trying to cope with what she is seeing in the trenches in Manhattan

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Sandy Milan Boyd has a message for anyone not taking the coronavirus pandemic seriously.

“If you don’t heed the shelter-in-place edicts, you are going to kill my mother. You may kill your mother or your grandmother. You will lose someone you love, I promise you. I’m not trying to scare anyone, but I’m here and I’m living it.”

Boyd should know. The 1982 Wilmington High graduate and Volant native is working 12-hour days as a physician assistant in the trenches in Manhattan in the midst of coronavirus. She is watching people die daily. 

Her mother, Barbara, is in a local nursing home, while her father, John, still lives in Lawrence County, as does her sister, Susan Kimmel.

“I’m scared for my mom, especially,” said Boyd, who is nicknamed “Egga.” “What if she gets this? She is all alone and is not allowed visitors. I Skype with her and I can see that she’s scared and confused. 

“You think because you’re in a small town, nothing is going to happen, that it’s going to stay in New York or big cities. Well I’m here to tell you, that is not the case. I think New York ‘gets it,’ because you hardly see anyone on the streets at this point. But my family and friends are telling me and sending me pictures to show me that not all people in my hometown are taking this seriously and it’s making me crazy. I love New Castle, I don’t want to see what is happening here to happen there.”

Boyd, 56, is a physician assistant based in Newtown Square near Philadelphia. She is an independent contractor, so travel is based on need. Three weeks ago, she said she was contacted by a staffing company to come to the 800-bed Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan to help treat pandemic patients.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is looking for more out-of-town help such as Boyd’s, calling Friday for a national enlistment program for doctors and nurses to handle an expected surge in coronavirus cases in New York and other places around the country where virus cases are straining existing health care systems.

“I think it’s time for our nation to enlist our medical personnel on a national basis,” the mayor said at a coronavirus briefing. “We don’t have the same kind of draft we used to have, but we’re going to have to create something new right now at this moment in history to enlist all available medical personnel around the country, and I mean civilians.

“Anyone with medical training anywhere in the country who can be spared by their city, their town, their state to come to the front.”

Boyd has responded to that need, but before doing so, she had to make certain that her husband, Tim, a Philadelphia native, and 21-year-old daughter Marion were on board with it.

“Marion was studying in London but is home for the semester when she normally wouldn’t be here,” Boyd said. “The last thing I want to do is expose them, so I’ve been staying in a different part of the house.

“My husband was afraid I wouldn’t be able to handle it, but it’s what I’m trained for. I’m not immune, but I can work through it — at least I hope I can. This is new for all of us.”

She received a scare, however, when Marion’s London roommate tested positive for coronavirus. Since it has been almost three weeks since she was exposed, the threat appears to have passed.

Boyd went into the trenches in Manhattan and she said her life already has been forever changed.

“All of New York is very desolate and probably three-quarters of the people who are out are wearing masks,” Boyd said. “People aren’t talking and they have scared looks on their faces. It is just an incredible eerie silence, like nothing I’ve ever heard before. It’s like a science fiction movie where everyone is walking around and there is just no sound.”

But then there are the emergency rooms where she will be working three days a week for the foreseeable future.

“It’s just so scary in there,” she said. “I’ve seen plenty of critical patients from having worked in Level II trauma, but I have never seen anything like this. 

“Someone will walk in the door of the ER saying they just don’t feel right or they feel like they might be having a heart attack, and you start assessing them and order a chest X-ray. While you’re doing that, they experience shortness of breath. Then before you even get a chance to intubate them, they have gotten to the point where they can’t talk and can’t breathe at all and they go into cardiac arrest. And then it’s too late. This person you were just talking to a few minutes before is dead.

“Oh and if they’ve come into the ER for evaluation, they have to come in alone,” Boyd added. “So if they become critically ill and they die, they die alone without any family members. It happens so fast, we realize what is happening but they don’t.”

Boyd said the sights of what she has been seeing on chest X-rays is frightening.

“Viral pneumonia makes the lungs look white,” she said. “It’s like a cloud. And if we are able to get them onto a vent, 80 percent either stay on there or die. Some do come off, but not many.”

Boyd now heads to New Hampshire for several days to work at a hospital there before returning to Manhattan. 

She said she now feels convinced she may have contracted coronavirus on March 6, but fought it off. 

“I had a fever that went up to 102.4 and severe myalgia (muscle pain) in my back, pelvis and legs,” she said. “I had no cough, but a sore throat and nasal congestion and then got a fever and chest tightness.

“Now that I’ve been in the middle of this in the ER, I know what it was.”

Ironically, she has been unable to obtain a test at this time and was told she would be put on a list.

“I’ve been staying at a hotel in Manhattan while I’m working, so I filled out a form for an antibody study to confirm that I had the virus,” she said. “I’m still waiting. It takes at least a week to get the results back so who knows when I’ll even start the process.”

She added she would not be contagious now, although there is no certainty as to whether the virus can return.

As Boyd fights the demon that is the coronavirus, she also fights one of what she calls ignorance.

“I got on an Amtrak train at Penn Station headed for Miami the other day so that I could get home to Philly,” she said. “There was hardly anybody on the train and I was able to put 10 to 15 feet between me and the closest person.

“A family got on and proceeded to fill the row of seats right behind me. The train has 10 cars so there was plenty of room. I got up and turned to the woman and said, ‘do you understand there is a quarantine and you cannot sit closer than 6 feet to me. I am a medical professional and just came off two shifts trying to save lives and you cannot put me at risk like this.

“The lady started freaking out on me and said I had no right to tell her what to do. I was tired, exhausted, and I yelled at her that people like her were causing the problem by not complying. I ended up being the one to get up and move. I wasn’t risking my own safety because someone else wasn’t going to follow the rules. They’re there for a reason.”

She said there is no way to foresee who that person is who dies almost immediately, who is able to put up a fight and who has few symptoms.

“That is something that is driving me crazy and I know driving all health care professionals crazy,” she said. “This virus doesn’t seem to follow a pattern. If I did have it, and I’m pretty sure that I did, why am I, a 56-year-old woman, different from the 17-year-old healthy athlete who lost his life? Who is picked and who isn’t. I hope that we get answers to these questions at some point.

“There are so many things to think of,” Boyd added. “You know you can transmit it through skin but now we’re also hearing possibly through hair. You can pick it up by handling a milk carton touched by someone infected. And think about someone who just spit on the sidewalk and you didn’t see it and walked in it. All you have to do is brush your shoe on your leg, then take your clothes off and put your hand to your face. And there it is. The cycle has begun.”

For any continued naysayers, Boyd said she will put her personal anger aside to try and get through to them.

“This is a moment in time, something we’ve never dealt with before and hopefully never will again,” she said. “Whether you’re a human being or an emergency care worker, you’re going to be affected by this. I don’t want for my fellow health care professionals and myself to be doing all of this for nothing. We have to save ourselves here and only we can do it.”

(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)

kcubbal@ncnewsonline.com

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