An act of service: One nurse’s three-month deployment to a COVID-19 ICU in New York

Charlotte Brenner was working as a case manager for UnitedHealthcare when she got an email that would uproot her life for three months. 

As COVID-19 cases began surging in New York, nurses were also catching the virus at a rapid rate. Charlotte, who was also a clinical nurse and direct commissioned officer in the Air Force Reserve, was deployed to the epicenter of the pandemic. 

At the time, she was living with her partner, her 2-year-old daughter and her four stepchildren outside Cleveland, helping UnitedHealthcare members in need receive home care, delivered meals and adaptive equipment. When she left home, she didn’t know where she would be stationed or what to expect.

“It happened really fast and there was a steep learning curve,” Charlotte said. 

For the next three months, she worked at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens. The makeshift ICU was at maximum capacity with about 16 patients — in one of the hardest hit areas in the city. Working 12 hours a day, three days a week, in full personal protective equipment, she put her clinical experience to work caring for two intubated patients per shift. 

“What hit the hardest was when you talk to staff and find out that a certain patient was a nurse that worked at the hospital,” she said. 

Because of the shortage of clinical staff at the hospital, a large portion of the care team was pulled in from other departments to help care for the influx of COVID-19 patients. Some didn’t have direct experience with intubated patients. Charlotte’s history of working in an ICU became an invaluable asset. 

Language was also an occasional barrier, as many of the patients or their families did not speak English, making it challenging to understand a patient’s medical history. 

“It was overwhelming,” she said. “But it’s adaptability when you go in every day. I’ve always said that in a critical care setting you have to put the emotional stuff away and take care of the patient.”

Having a support team that was in a similar boat was a big help. Every night after her shift, she had dinner with the other Air Force Reserve nurses. This allowed all of them to process and decompress from the long day. Exercise also made an impact. On her days off, she would walk or run everywhere in New York City — sometimes traveling up to 14 miles a day.

Eventually, more nurses returned to the hospital, allowing Charlotte to return home. The celebration of her homecoming in Ohio was jubilant. She surprised her daughter in the garage of their house. 

“You could tell she wanted to cry, but instead she made a quirky laugh,” she said. “It was so cute.”

From there, Charlotte faced a new challenge — returning back to “normal” life. This meant getting back into a workday that didn’t involve a singular focus. The transition often isn’t an easy one for those who serve. But her family and support network, including her UnitedHealthcare team, helped make it easier.

Throughout her whole mission — from her time in New York City to coming back home and beyond — she was grateful for her UnitedHealthcare team’s compassion and outreach. 

“They were beyond whatever I could have expected,” she said. “While I was gone, they sent letters and co-workers would text or call. They sent lots of gift cards to my family with encouraging notes. I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive team.”

Charlotte said she learned a lot from the experience, giving her an important perspective that will endure through all aspects of her life. 

“I try to be more available and more in the moment,” she said. “When I served, I said, ‘Get through the first month. Be open to getting outside your comfort zone and accept people for who they are.’ We have to be more accepting. Going there has made me grateful for my life.”


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