Houston VA nurses recount volunteer efforts in New Orleans

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- When duty called, seven nurses here at the VA hospital in Houston answered. They went to New Orleans to help fight COVID-19 in one of the hardest hit areas of the country.

For two weeks they helped care for countless patients while supporting their front-line colleagues in a neighboring state.

One of those nurses was Crystal Morris.

"It was an opportunity for us to be able to give back, help our fellow nurses, and I mean learn from the disease process all in one," she told ABC13 from self-quarantine in her Houston home.

Morris, an intensive care surgical nurse, said the effort was overwhelming at times, and gratifying at others. It was unlike anything she's experienced during her 11 years as a nurse. One patient after another struggled to survive.

"You could see the fear in their eyes," she said. "Sometimes you could see the tears rolling down their face. So it was really heartbreaking. "

Dustin Ayres was another of the volunteers. He served three tours in Iraq before becoming a nurse two years ago. He'd go to New Orleans if he could. He told ABC13 his wife supported him and understood the importance of their sacrifice.

"Minus the violence, it was very similar to a deployment to a war zone," he said. "When they call was put out and they needed help, I just felt like it was the right thing to do. That I needed to go and help."

New Orleans was hit especially hard. As of April 23, Orleans Parish had suffered 344 deaths, and the VA Hospital there leads the nation among VA cases with 450.

Jennie Clark was also a veteran before becoming a cardiac care nurse. She knew going to New Orleans was critical to understanding the illness and ultimately providing better care at her home hospital, the Michael E DeBakey VA Medical Center in The Texas Medical Center.

"When I walked into the New Orleans VA and the first time I walked into the ICU and saw the number of cases that they had and how critical they were it was just a surreal moment," Clark said.

She was struck most, though, by the nationwide effort to help those in need.

"It was great to see everybody come together and help as well. We weren't the only ones that went," she said. "There were responders and volunteers from all over the country that went and helped."

All seven are home now. Nine days into quarantine, none are sick. And they can't wait to get back to work helping others.

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