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Connections work

How a romance writer in Rockland got winter coats to a Little Rock nurse in Brooklyn

Kamron Steed and another visiting nurse visit a nearly empty Times Square before starting their first shift. (Kamron Steed)
Kamron Steed and another visiting nurse visit a nearly empty Times Square before starting their first shift. (Kamron Steed)

Everything is connected.

We know that’s true in the Jewish world, small and insular as it tends to be. But it’s true outside as well, particularly in these odd, fraught times.

Miriam Allenson of Clifton is the marketing and communications director of the Jewish Federation and Foundation of Rockland County. She’s also a published novelist; she writes romantic fiction, and she belongs to writers’ groups, where she learns and networks and in general polishes her art.

She met Karen Laird of Little Rock, Arkansas, on one of those groups. Karen reviewed Miriam’s first book, “For the Love of the Dame,” in 2014. When Miriam realized that she and Karen belonged to the same group, on Facebook, she wrote to Karen, who responded. The two became friends.

Facebook friends, that is; they’ve sent each other many private messages, as well as public ones, but they’ve never even spoken by voice, much less met in person. Still, the relationship is real.

So when Miriam saw Karen’s post saying that “her daughter-in-law was joining a bunch of nurses who were going to a hospital in New York to help out, I immediately sent her a private message telling her that I’d do anything I could to help her,” she said.

“I gave Karen both of my numbers, cellphone and landline, and she gave them to her daughter-in-law. I said that if for any reason whatsoever she needs anything, she should reach out to me.”

Last year, back home in Little Rock, Kamron holds her infant niece.

Karen Laird’s daughter-in-law, Kamron Steed, is a pediatric emergency room nurse in Little Rock, and she did need a few things.

“First, she needed a mini-fridge,” Miriam said. That’s because Kamron, along with the other nurses working for the company she signed on with, is staying in a hotel, the Sheraton on Seventh Avenue. She brought two large suitcases with her, but they were packed with scrubs and supplies. She realized that she also needed food. “She went online, to Target, to Walmart, to Amazon, and they had them, but it would take at least a week to deliver them. So she asked me, ‘Do you know where I can get one? And I thought of P.C. Richard.” (P.C. Richard is a local chain, as everyone who has heard the thick-to-the-point-of-parody accent in its earworm jingle must know.) Not only did P.C. Richard have a mini-fridge in stock, it has a store on 23rd Street; Kamron just took an Uber and picked it up. “And it was cheaper than online, too,” Miriam said.

Next, Kamron had a harder request. She and the other nurses who’d flown up to New York from the south had no idea that it would be cold here. “They have no idea how the weather changes in the Northeast in April,” Miriam said. “They came with no coats.”

Moreover, they couldn’t buy any. “Everything is all set up to sell summer clothes by now,” Miriam said. “So I couldn’t think of anything to do myself, but I thought that I’d call my daughter-in-law.”

Leslie Allenson, her husband, Aaron, and their three sons had moved to Tenafly from Chicago just a few months ago, but Leslie already had joined local Facebook groups. When her mother-in-law called, Leslie said, she had an idea. “I reached out to my network of friends, and I left boxes outside. And things just started showing up.

“Within a couple of hours, we had three boxes full of stuff, and there are still other boxes in my garage. There are coats and also sweatshirts and brand-new shoes.

These boxes were some of the donations that Leslie Allenson was able to give to Kamron Steed and her friends, through their mothers-in-law’s connection.

“The only thing that I couldn’t get was bleach and Lysol wipes.”

That changed quickly. “We just had the most amazing delivery of wipes, Lysol spray, face shields, and masks,” Leslie texted a few days later, still overwhelmed by people’s generosity and desire to help. She’s still collecting clothing, bleach, and Lysol; you can get them to her by emailing her at lesallenson@yahoo.com.

“We’re all in this together,” Leslie said. “If there is even the tiniest thing I can do to help, I will do it. And I want my kids to see that we will do whatever we can, because we are a community.”

That afternoon, Miriam and her husband, Andy, drove to Tenafly; “we were very properly wearing masks and social distancing, even with our own children,” she said. “They put out the box and a huge, black garbage bag, both of them piled to the top and overflowing. I don’t have any idea how many garments were in there, but you could tell that they were nice.”

In Arkansas, Kamron poses with some of her EMT colleagues.

Then they drove the boxes to the Sheraton. “It was quite an experience, driving into the city,” Miriam said. “There was absolutely no traffic. Kamron and another nurse came downstairs. We were all wearing masks, and we gave them the boxes. I included a block of cheddar cheese and some raspberry jam. And I’d baked a mandel bread, so she could get a flavor of Jewish baking.”

It helped her as much as it helped the nurses, Miriam said. “I was so overwhelmed with gratitude by being able to do anything to help.”

Kamron Steed began her career in health care as a paramedic, and now she is an ER nurse at Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock. “It’s a level 1 pediatric trauma center,” she said. She’s also married, and the mother of four sons, who are 6, 9, 15, and 17 years old; her husband, Michael, also began as a paramedic and now is a registered nurse.

Recently, Kamron’s had less than usual to do at work. “Covid-19 is not affecting the pediatric population as much as the adult population, and Arkansas is not as hard hit by it as other states, like New York and New Jersey,” she said. “We are seeing a lower census than I’ve ever seen before, and I’ve been there for five years.”

That’s because people are staying away from the hospital if they don’t absolutely have to go; the fear of catching covid-19 at a hospital is widespread and has been keeping many people who should be in emergency rooms far away.

Masks are vitally important but hard to wear. Here is how Kamron looked after her shift; we see the marks of her N95 mask.

That’s hard for the hospital, though; like other hospitals, hers is finding it hard to stay afloat. Administrators “are doing their best to keep giving us our full-time hours, but they were granting permission for time off whenever they could. They were trying to keep on the people who needed to work, but they said, ‘Hey, if you can take some time off, please do,’” she said.

So, with her need to help — the need that drove her first into becoming a paramedic and then a nurse, her restlessness at the enforced inactivity, and the fact that she has support at home, and she has childcare, “I asked my boss if I could go to New York.

“He told me to pause.” But other people had been asking, too, so “they decided that they could let two people each from several different departments go, and they’d still be okay if there were an influx of covid-19 patients.

“So I put in for it, and I was granted it. So now I’m on a leave of absence from work.” She’s been given five weeks off; that means that she has a contract to work in New York for 21 days, and then she’ll go home and stay in self-quarantine for another two weeks, as required by state law. She’s working for a staffing agency called Krucial Staffing, and she’s been assigned to Queens Hospital in Flushing.

“I’ve always been one to go to where the need is,” Kamron said. “I feel the need to do my part, and at home it felt a little bit like I wasn’t doing my part.” Before she decided to go, “my two teenagers both asked me, ‘When are you going to New York?’ I asked them why, and they said, ‘Ma, we just expect you to go.’”

This is Kamron’s first trip to New York. She had two days in the city before she started her work.

It’s odd to tour the city when it’s empty. “We did go to see the World Trade Center memorial,” she said; it was closed, but it still was deeply moving. And “I have seen Times Square, which was very empty.

“Honestly, with the number of people there, it felt a little like Little Rock.”

Before work began, she was in an odd sort of limbo. She and other nurses waiting to begin ran errands for nurses whose work already had started, and she learned how it works. “You leave at least an hour before your shift, and you don’t get back until an hour and a half after it’s over,” she said. “We try to social distance at all times, and we wear masks at all times. We have our own entrance to the hotel. It’s a post-shift walkway. When we come in from our shift, we go straight through the walkway to our room, strip, and shower, and then go immediately to sleep.

“There are at least 1,000 of us in our hotel,” she added.

They don’t have to worry about where their meals are coming from. The World Central Kitchen — the extraordinary nonprofit group, created and run by Chef José Andrés, that goes into disaster areas and feeds people, and that has defined places hard-hit by covid as disaster areas — provides them.

Kamron Steed right, and another nurse, Haley Massino of Maryland, explore midtown Manhattan before they start their first shifts with coronavirus patients in New York. (Kamron Steed)

There are other supplies that she and the other nurses can use, Kamron added; they need hand lotion, chapstick, and moisturizer because the constant hand washing and masking can make their skin raw and eventually it cracks. Leslie and Miriam can help with that.

After some confusion — some facilities have all the staff they need, others do not, and the need changes constantly as both the patient population and the staff numbers go up and down — Kamron began her three weeks of 12-hour shifts. She’s at the Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, a publicly owned facility in Brooklyn, in a neighborhood now called Wingate but often considered either Crown Heights or East Flatbush.

It’s a large institution, with 320 beds — “it has almost as many as my home hospital,” Kamron said — “and it lost an employee and several residents to covid, so a lot of people quit because they were scared to work there. So there’s not a lot of staff, and they’re still receiving residents from King County,” the large public hospital nearby.

“So we’re there to support the staff, which has been hit really hard. They’re really exhausted.

“And they’re really nice,” she added.

She and the other nurses get from midtown to Brooklyn by a chartered bus; it’s about a 40-minute ride. (It would take far longer if traffic were normal, but it’s not.) “One of the bus drivers lives in Arkansas,” she said. “He said, ‘I’m here until they don’t need me anymore. Then I’ll go home.’”

It’s not at all what she expected, and it’s not what she’s used to; she is after all a pediatric emergency room nurse, and here she is working with elderly people with long-term problems. Some have covid, some don’t; all have serious problems and need help. “It’s the exact opposite of what I do at home, and I am completely out of my element,” she said.

Another new issue Kamron is facing is how to talk to patients. The nursing home’s population is wildly multiethnic; some don’t speak English well, and some are fluent but heavily accented. That’s a problem exacerbated by all the gear that gets between a mouth and an ear. “We wear so much PPE,” Kamron said. “I wear two masks, the N95 and then a surgical mask, and also a face shield. It can be really hard to hear through that, and then there is the accent. Sometimes I have to be right on top of someone to hear what they are saying.”

As for the numbers who have covid — “the death rate here has gone down, but this facility has refrigerated trucks right outside,” she said grimly; those trucks are for bodies.

She doesn’t have any real stories she can tell. “Anything that I could say might come back as a Hipaa violation,” a breach of someone’s privacy, both morally and legally, she said. “Everything else is pretty generic, just normal hospital stuff.”

But this isn’t a normal time, and it isn’t normal hospital work.

Kamron is thinking of staying for another two-week stint; to do that, she’ll need the permission of the head of her home hospital, and the question of whether New York will continue to accept licensing from Arkansas — something it doesn’t usually do but has done during the pandemic — will have to be settled. No matter how long she stays here, she will have to take another two weeks to self-quarantine at home before she can return either to work or to normal life.

The work wasn’t exactly what she had expected, but “the staff tells us every single day that they appreciate it, and they say that they don’t know what they would have done without us,” Kamron said. And as for her, “this is where I am needed. I wanted to help in any way I could, and this is where I can help.

“This is what I am supposed to be doing. This is the right thing for me to be doing.”

Kamron and her colleagues also manage to find some small joys as they work. They asked for warm clothing because they were cold, but they were able to take active pleasure in the pieces that were donated. One of her friends fell in love with “a sweater with a deer painted on it and a sewn-in turtleneck, and a lined, really warm tracksuit.” She found “a leather jacket. A genuine leather jacket. It made my day. I was like, ‘This is perfect.’”

So this is how connections work. Miriam and Karen connect through their shared passion for writing and for their genre, romantic fiction. Miriam and Leslie connect because they’re family, and so are Karen and Kamron; in fact, they’re two sets of mothers- and daughters-in-law. Leslie can connect with her community of other local mothers, and get supplies together in almost no time flat. And then, and most importantly, Kamron can connect with the patients who need her help.

We just have to connect.

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