GADSDEN — Ethan Suttle is a sturdy guy with a bushy beard and a life story decorated with all things Alabama. He’s from St. Clair County. He graduated from the University of Alabama. He ended up in east Alabama years ago because “a woman dragged me up to Gadsden.”
He smirks when saying that.
The woman is old news. So is his beard.
Why’d he shave?
So his N95 mask would fit properly.
Suttle is a 30-year-old nurse in the surgical intensive care unit at Gadsden Regional Medical Center, heroic work in the era of COVID-19. “I have a unique skill set,” he says. “There’s not that many people who know how to care for a critically ill patient.”
So later this week Suttle and his girlfriend — the current one — will head out for New York City, where he’s volunteered to work in the U.S. pandemic epicenter. Once there he’ll put his girlfriend on a flight home and begin a six-week contract at a Long Island hospital whose nursing staff has been decimated by the novel coronavirus.
The beard had to go.
“I freaked myself out a couple of times over the past couple of nights,” he says. “I do have a little bit of a cavalier attitude, that I’m young and it’s not really a big deal for me that much. But it has set in a little bit over the past couple of days.
“Not to be morbid or anything,” he says, “but the slight realization that I might not come back.”
Suttle is young and wise, but morbid? I don’t think so. He knows he’s running into the fire, that there are risks for those on the front line against COVID-19. They’re getting sick. Especially in New York City.
The New York State Nurses Association this week filed lawsuits against that state’s Department of Health and two hospitals because they believe they aren’t being properly equipped and protected. Eighty-four of the association’s nurses have tested positive for COVID-19, CNN reported; six nurses are among that state’s 14,000-plus deaths.
This is the difference between doctors and nurses and policemen and firemen and soldiers and the rest of us. We aren’t them. They rush in instead of flee. Scared? Sure. But not dissuaded.
As for Suttle’s path to this point, as a trained ICU nurse heading to a hospital stricken in a pandemic, it’s a bit off-kilter.
Nursing wasn’t his childhood dream. In high school he was a “science geek,” more Howard Wolowitz than Sheldon Cooper. He planned to be an engineer. In Tuscaloosa he found that he was stuck ingloriously in the middle of the pack, not terrible, but not spectacular, either. “That was different for me; it was scary,” he says.
Suttle dropped his second calculus class, dipped his toe in economics and realized during the Great Recession that job security mattered.
“To be honest,” he says, “nursing was just kind of the safe choice.”
Then, another realization.
“I was good at it,” he says. “It’s not like the storybook calling, but I just wanted to care for people.”
Oh, and get this: Suttle’s impetus for volunteering to go to New York didn’t come from a colleague or mentor. It came from Michael Osterholm, a noted epidemiologist interviewed a few weeks ago on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast.
Even though he worked as an ICU nurse, Suttle wasn’t convinced of COVID-19’s ultimate impact. But Osterholm used facts and science to explain what was almost assuredly coming — 100,000 or more U.S. deaths and hospitals overrun with coronavirus patients.
“He used the term that trying to stop a virus that is as contagious as this one and is airborne is like trying to stop the wind,” Suttle said. “That hit home with me.”
He knew what he had to do. He had to go to New York.
After applying through a health recruiting agency and listening to offers for White Plains, N.Y., and California, Suttle was offered an assignment for a hospital in Brooklyn — though with a warning. Yes, the money was tempting. But, still.
“The hospital said to make sure and say this is not a normal hospital situation,” the recruiter told him. “It’s like a disaster area.” Medical wards were set up in tents in the parking lot; neighboring streets were closed.
“I’m telling you all this,” the recruiter said, “because the hospital has told us to basically try to scare anyone that says they want to come there just to make sure that if you're going, that’s what you are going to do.”
Suttle paused. But who other than America’s critical-care nurses could do this, he thought.
He signed the contract, becoming one of the more than 25,000 retired and active health-care workers from outside of New York who’ve answered that state’s call.
Suttle remembers hearing New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s appeals for help, and he listened.
“I felt like that was kind of me,” he says.