SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — Cruising his Citi Bike around the Big Apple through the chilled April air, nurse Tucker Westbrook took in all the sights of what’s normally the country’s most bustling city. Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building, Central Park — with what little free time he had, the Georgia Southern University (GSU) graduate explored New York City for the first time in his 23 years.

But he wasn’t a tourist, and his unusual view of the city was like nothing many had ever seen. “It was like a ghost town, it was surreal and something that I’ll never forget,” Westbrook told NOW.

With no professional nursing experience under his belt, Westbrook found himself on a three-week crisis nurse assignment in the biggest COVID-19 hotspot in the United States.

“I was scared, to be honest,” he revealed. 

A passion for nursing

Westbrook credits his dad with encouraging him to pursue nursing. The Butler, Georgia, native landed a volunteering gig at Atlanta’s Piedmont hospital in middle school. It’s where he first realized his calling for helping others. 

“I would do simple things like answer the front desk phones, talk to patients that were bored, and I thoroughly enjoyed it even though I wasn’t really doing anything and wasn’t getting paid,” Westbrook recalled. “I enjoyed just sitting with patients, talking to them, hearing their stories, I mean, whatever I could do to make that stay as pleasurable as possible.”

Westbrook’s parents, Scott and Michelle, recognized his gift for doing well in STEM classes early on. When he reached his junior year, they spoke with him about his career goals.

“What I’ve told a lot of young people when I talked to them is if you don’t know what you want to do [yet], one thing to consider is if you’re a male, go into a female-dominated profession, and if you’re a female, go into a male-dominated profession,” his father told NOW. “It really will make it a lot easier on your career as far as finding jobs and opportunities for advancement.”

Westbrook says nursing felt like the best fit for his future. “I knew medicine, but nursing, I thought, had the best combination of being able to care for patients physically, spiritually, mentally and emotionally,” he said. “I’m the one that’s gonna be by the bedside, that’s advocating for them to the physician, so nursing was one of my first passions and something I’ve wanted to do for as long as I can remember.” 

Man of faith on a mission 

“My faith is the most important thing to me,” said Westbrook, who was brought up in a Christian household and community. Westbrook says his involvement in his college’s campus ministry equipped him to share his faith with others.

Following his May 2019 graduation from GSU, Westbrook set off three months later for a year-long mission trip to Southeast Asia. His goal was to share the gospel with people in the region. “They don’t have access to it and people don’t come in and tell them,” he said.

“I saw the great need there and wanted to share the greatest story that I’ve ever heard and something that changed my life with others,” he added.

In January, COVID-19 cases began to emerge in greater numbers across the region, and Westbrook and his colleagues were forced to return to the U.S. Disappointed, Westbrook felt his mission was incomplete and wasn’t ready to go home. “I was really upset and said, ‘Lord, here I am ready to serve you in this place and now it’s cut short,’” Westbrook shared.

As a licensed nurse amid a global health crisis, he soon found another way to lend a helping hand. 

Journey to New York

Westbrook quarantined in his parents’ basement for two weeks after his trip. Eager to serve, he wasted no time at all in exploring ways to put his limited nursing background to use.

“One of my dad’s friends sent him a picture of an opportunity in New York that had three-week contracts where you work 21 straight days, and you came back home,” he said.

It looked too good to be true, but after perusing Facebook for the experiences of nurses who had participated, he decided to apply. Three weeks sounded perfect for Westbrook, who was short on time due to starting up classes again at GSU over the summer. 

“You called in, and you got on the line with somebody and if you had your license and the paperwork needed, you were good to go and had to leave in 48 to 72 hours,” Westbrook said. He finally got through after multiple calls. “[I told them], ‘I’m ready to come work if you have a place for me, but I want to tell you kind of where I’m at [with the lack of experience],’ and they said, ‘that’s fine, we just basically need bodies right now,’” he said. 

In just three days, he gathered as many blue scrubs as he could find, searched for his stethoscope and prepared to depart for his first-ever professional nursing job. 

On the front lines

Westbrook’s biggest worry heading up north as a crisis nurse wasn’t about his own health, but the impact his limited real-world experience could have on others. “I was scared of my incompetence, I didn’t have any experience and was really afraid that I was gonna put patients’ lives at risk because I didn’t know what I was doing,” he shared.

Another concern — winding up in the intensive care unit or becoming part of the horror stories involving nurses who couldn’t keep up with the mounting number of bodies. 

Scott Westbrook tried to quell his eldest son’s fears before seeing him off. “I said, ‘Tucker, they’re not gonna ask you to do heart surgery, don’t worry, there are too many safeguards,’” Scott said. “’They’re gonna stretch you, but by the same token, they’re not gonna ask you to do something that’s gonna harm a patient.’”

Along with his father’s pep talk, Westbrook says friends and family who rooted for him gave him the boost he needed. “There were so many people praying for me, and it gave me the confidence to start and say, ‘okay, this is what I’m doing, and if the Lord has called me to this, then he will also equip me to do this,’” he said. 

Westbrook was assigned to a COVID-19 holding unit at Harlem Hospital Center. Patients were kept there as they awaited test results. He recalls having anywhere from one to four patients during his 12-and-a-half hour shifts. “Half the time we had COVID-19 patients, and half the time it turned into a surgical unit as things slowed down,” Westbrook said. 

He says the support from other nurses on his unit was incredible.

“I was able to have different mentors that guided me through it, where by the end of it, people told me, ‘if you would’ve never told me you were a new nurse, I wouldn’t have even known,’” he said.

‘Sometimes it was just nonstop’

Wake up at 5:45 a.m. Pray. Eat crackers and chug water — likely the only meal he’d have time to eat all day. Leave the hotel at 6:50 a.m. Arrive at the hospital by 7 a.m. for another long shift. 

This was Westbrook’s morning routine during his 21-day stint in New York City. There wasn’t always time for bathroom breaks or even a quick sip of water under his mask, he remembered. “Sometimes it was just nonstop, I was on my feet,” he said.

Day in and day out, the nurse’s tasks ranged from giving baths and medication, visiting and talking with patients or monitoring post-surgical procedures. 

At the day’s end, a worn-out Westbrook would head back to the hotel around 9 p.m., decontaminate all his belongings, shovel food down his throat and FaceTime his parents for a brief 10 to 15 minutes before passing out. “It was obvious when we’d talk to him that he was exhausted,” Scott said. “There was one night I think he fell asleep mid-conversation, we were talking and I just said, ‘go to bed, son, go to bed.’”

Westbrook says his energy was low, but he was preserved by God’s grace. “I’m really thankful,” he said. 

‘A ray of light in a dark time’

Throughout his time as a crisis nurse in Harlem, Westbrook encountered homeless people looking for a warm place to stay, mental health patients and even gunshot victims.

His very first patient was a teenager who started off in pretty good spirits despite his gunshot injury, Westbrook said. It later became clear that a COVID-19 diagnosis frightened the young man much more than the bullet that had pierced his flesh.

“We found out he was a COVID positive patient, but we didn’t know that until his swab came back,” Westbrook recalled. “We put him in the isolation room after we found out, and he started getting really antsy and afraid.” The teen burst into tears, telling the nurses that all their protective gear made him feel like he was infected with the plague. 

“He said, ‘I’m in this room by myself, I can’t see my family, I’m not able to really talk to people, I’m just scared,’” Westbrook said. It wasn’t long before he was joining his patient in tears. “I started crying right there in front of him, I just sat with him and I said, ‘Man, I’m so sorry this is what you’re going through. I want you to know that I want to do anything I can to make this stay as comfortable for you as possible,’” he shared.

“It was really crazy to see the emotional tax that this diagnosis would have on people,” he said, adding that he hoped to be “a ray of light in a dark time” for the patients he served.

‘One of the coolest things I’ve ever done’

At the time of interview, Westbrook was back home in Butler, Georgia, quarantining in his parents’ basement for another two weeks following his unique experience in New York City. “Looking back at it, it’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done, and it’s such an amazing thing to even have that opportunity,” Westbrook said.

One of his former GSU nursing professors, Danielle Peacock, tells NOW that the world could use more Tuckers. “He just keeps everybody’s spirits lifted, ” she said. “I was not surprised at all that Tucker would go where help is needed.”

Scott says that while his son may not consider himself a hero, that’s not the case in his eyes. “When you run into a situation as a nurse and you know you’re gonna encounter patients that have a contagious disease with no vaccine and no known cure, and there’s a distinct possibility of death or organ damage even if you survive, that’s a hero calling right there,” he said. 

Westbrook is getting ready to take a range of biology, physics and chemistry courses at his alma mater over the coming weeks in preparation for a pre-med track, and possibly medical school down the line.

He shares these words of encouragement for other nurses taking on a similar challenge as a crisis nurse during the ongoing pandemic: “Keep your head up, have a good attitude, be an advocate for those patients, you might be the only person they see the whole day, or you might be the only person they see before their death.”

“Stay strong; we already know how strong you are just by finding yourself in this position on the front lines,” Westbrook said. “You are a hero, and you are capable of so much.”