First-term senator (and nurse) battles horror of COVID-19 cases

By , Daily Memphian Published: April 23, 2020 10:46 AM CT

State Sen. Katrina Robinson isn’t sheltering at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s helping wage a war against the disease at its American epicenter — New York City.

A registered nurse, the Memphis Democrat has volunteered in an intensive care unit dealing with COVID-19 patients at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan since early April. That was the period during which as the nation’s biggest city was being devastated by coronavirus cases.

To COVID-19 hell and back: One man’s story

The city has more than 142,000 confirmed cases, according to the latest statistics, with nearly 11,000 deaths.

And despite the grind and the difficulty of seeing patients without family support, she’s finding the work personally fulfilling. Robinson, 39, plans to come home this week.

“I’ve been here for three weeks now, and it has been like nothing that I’ve ever seen before in my life. These people are really, really sick,” Robinson said.

Most of the patients are African American and Hispanic, and they come in after three days of symptoms and wind up on a ventilator on day five.

“They don’t have family by their side. It’s … heart-wrenching just to watch,” she said.

Inside Baptist’s COVID-19 ICU: No visitors, IV stations in the halls and experimental treatments

Robinson got used to having family members call every 10 to 15 minutes to check on loved ones. It wasn’t easy to get over one case in which a 25-year-old man succumbed to the illness, and his mother was allowed to come in.

“And she was just writhing in sorrow. … It sounded like physical pain the way she cried at the loss of her son. That was what really got to me,” Robinson said.

Prayer before every shift, a good supply of personal protective equipment and texts from her two children keep her going.

Seeing the challenges hospitals are facing is nearly as difficult.

While other hospitals in the Queens and Bronx don’t have adequate protective equipment, Robinson said Bellevue has a good supply. She’s outfitted with N95 masks, gowns, footwear and head cover as well as an airway pressure helmet she wears on some floors to keep out airborne particles while still allowing her to breathe.

The admission rate and understaffing are the biggest problems at Bellevue, where nurses on the bed surge floor have about 10 patients apiece and Robinson said she could have up to four patients a night in ICU.

New York City’s main problem is its transportation system, where people are in close quarters, and a largely condensed population where people come into contact with others frequently, she pointed out.

Some of the nurses who started working with Robinson when she got there are sick now, and an ICU assistant director of nursing died, according to Robinson.

“It’s very real for them,” she said.

Robinson, who went to volunteer with a friend in the nursing field, told her two children and mother before she left but otherwise she kept it secret. She was afraid people would worry too much or try to talk her out of it.

The past two months have been tumultuous for the first-term senator. Her business, a nursing and health care school Healthcare Institute on Winchester, was raided by the FBI, which has not commented on what it is investigating. She missed a few days of legislative work.

But she traveled to Nashville even when COVID-19 was starting to spread into Tennessee in mid-March and wrapped up business, helping pass an emergency budget before the General Assembly recessed until June 1. Leaders have raised questions about whether the Legislature can return by then.

Governor allows more flexibility for first responders, health care personnel

Robinson has work to do in the meantime. She’s been overseeing work by day at the Healthcare Institute, which is conducting classes online, and pulling a shift at Bellevue at night. Simultaneously, she’s putting together a plan for reopening the school whenever Shelby County’s “Safer at Home” order is lifted.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee is set to lift his order April 30 for the state and will allow some businesses in rural and suburban counties to resume operations April 27. Officials in Shelby and other urban counties are being allowed to set their own reopening guidelines.

The governor’s decision and the uncertainty surrounding Shelby are leaving Robinson unsettled.

“It’s been very fulfilling to be here. … It’s just that I worry so much about Gov. Lee lifting our (Safer at Home) order and we’re not quite where we should be. I just worry this is going to accelerate things for us at home,” Robinson said.

She would prefer a uniform opening of the economy statewide to avoid confusion, and she hopes her experience in New York City can prove helpful in helping set policy in Shelby County and Tennessee.

As a business owner, she plans to take a conservative approach to reopening the nursing school. Yet she’s concerned local hospitals could be seeing only the tip of the COVID-19 cases.


Katrina Robinson Bill Lee
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter with more than 30 years of journalism experience as a writer, editor and columnist covering the state Legislature and Tennessee politics for The Daily Memphian.


Want to comment on our stories? Or read the comments of others? Join the conversation by subscribing now. Only subscribers can view or add comments. Our commenting policy can be viewed here