By Emma Castleberry
When Megan Carroll, a registered nurse at Asheville’s Charles George VA Medical Center, first learned about COVID-19, she was completely unaware of the profound impact the virus would have on the world and on her career. “I initially compared it to the flu,” she says, “just to educate people about the severity of influenza and the importance of the flu vaccine.”
The harsh reality of the virus became clear months later when Megan found herself, wrapped head to toe in protective gear, on the 13th floor of the Brooklyn VA Medical Center. She entered the room of a 35-year-old man suffering from the virus. “He could barely respond to me,” she remembers. “He was simply nodding yes and no, grimacing while sweat poured down his face. It was this moment when I realized how the virus was capable of affecting me, just five years younger than this man, free of any co-morbidities or risk factors.”
Through a program called the Disaster Emergency Medical Personnel System (DEMPS), operated by the Veteran Health Administration, Megan was sent to the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis as it peaked in New York City. “I volunteered as soon as I found out that DEMPS existed,” she says. “I knew I needed to be part of it. I felt compelled to provide care.” This compulsion to help others is a defining part of Megan’s identity, as it is for many nurses. “The thing I love the most about my job is that no matter what happened to me that day, good or bad, I leave knowing that I did something for another human that helped them,” she says.
Megan’s parents always said nursing would be the perfect career for her, but she initially ignored their advice in favor of a degree in art history and curatorial studies from UNC-Greensboro. After her move to Asheville in 2012, destiny prevailed, and Megan graduated from the WCU ABSN program with honors in 2017. “Once I pursued nursing, it opened my eyes to an entire new world of beauty I never even knew I could appreciate,” she says. “It helped me realize I was interested in cellular biology and the intricate workings of human anatomy. It also allowed me to enhance one of my greatest strengths: working with people.”
As the COVID-19 crisis worsened in April, Megan knew it was likely she would be deployed to either New Orleans or New York, so she had a few days to prepare. Once she got the official deployment phone call, she was on a plane to NYC in less than 24 hours. “Because of the sheer volume of COVID-19 cases, the VA in Brooklyn opened its doors to non-veterans and was flooded with patients from all across NYC,” she says. “The entire hospital was for COVID-19 patients.”
Megan worked 12-hour shifts at the Brooklyn VA for two weeks. She spent these long shifts working with other travel nurses in a consistently high-stress environment. “I gave medications and minimized my time in patient rooms, apologizing for not staying longer, not knowing them better,” she says. “I struggled not getting to know my patients as I would without the precautions.” The days were long and hard, but there were moments of beauty. “Every day at 7 p.m., there was all this noise—clapping, cheering, pots and pans banging—for a straight minute to honor essential workers,” she says. “I heard it in Chelsea, I heard it in Brooklyn. It gave me chills. It honored me to be part of the profession. It made me so happy that people still have this spirit, that people are still here for one another. I will remember those moments for the rest of my life.”
Megan was asked to extend her stay at the Brooklyn VA, but she was needed back home at the Asheville VA Hospital. “My greatest takeaway from my time in New York was the kindness and compassion from absolute strangers during this stressful time,” she says. Megan hopes that compassion will carry through as businesses start to reopen and that people will continue to be cautious. “We have the luxury of not being as affected as those in New York City,” she says. “It’s easy to think this isn’t a big deal because we don’t see it here—it’s too far away. But I saw it firsthand. I know if people experienced what I did, they would act differently. They would be more cautious. I plan to stay at home and take all the precautions I can. We have to support one another.”
The COVID-19 Healthcare Hero Response Fund: Feed the Soul was established to donate meals to healthcare workers. Little Sprout Carryout in Asheville is the first WNC restaurant to participate. Learn more or donate at NCHA.org.