Over 31 days, Va. Tech senior saw virus’s toll on Texas front
As a hospital volunteer in July, Henrico man honed his sense of compassion
On Cameron Buck’s first night working in the intensive care unit, he was asked to monitor a man on suicide watch. A 21-year-old volunteer hospital worker, Buck wore two layers of gloves, two gowns, a mask and a face shield that usually caused him to sweat.
The patient, a young Latino man, wore gauze around his neck from the self-inflicted wound that landed him under constant supervision. He had also tested positive for COVID-19, but his face was uncovered.
For eight hours through the night, the two men talked about
The hours dragged on, and the sleep-deprived employees kept working. Finally at 4 p.m., 22 hours after their shift began, they were allowed to go. Buck and the others squeezed into a white, 12- seat van that drove through standing water that splashed over the hood. When he returned to his hotel room, he immediately passed out on the bed.
their jobs, their cultures and loved ones. Despite the layers between them, Buck, a Virginia Tech student from western Henrico County, and the man, a fruit farmer from the southern tip of Texas, connected. Buck was the only one in the hospital, the man said, who treated him like a person and not a psychiatric patient.
Hours later, another caregiver asked Buck, had he seen the tattoo on the Latino man’s arm? It meant he was a member of the gang MS-13.
Buck decided he didn’t care. The job was to treat patients, not judge them.
It was July, and Buck had answered a call to work as a hospital technician in Hidalgo County, Texas, along the Mexico border. Hospitals had been overwhelmed by the virus. Case counts were at their highest, and medical staffs were depleted.
More than 4,000 Texans died of COVID-19 during July, a month in which hospitalizations peaked. Cases there are on the rise again, and the state recently surpassed 1 million total cases.
During a relentless month, when he saw patients die and their beds quickly refilled with new, sick people, Buck learned to value his time with each of them. It gave him a new appreciation for his patients as people with stories, families and lives that had been wrecked by the virus.
“It mademe a more compassionate provider,” Buck said.
When the virus first peaked in the spring, Buck’s father, Jason, was furloughed from his job as an emergency room nurse at Chippenham Hospital. When a call went out for additional workers to come to Harlem Hospital in New York City, Jason Buck accepted. He worked there for a month and accepted a second call in June to go to Texas.
This time, Cameron’s mother, Debi, suggested he go with his father if he could get a job. It would be good career experience and good life experience. Buck’s summer internship had been canceled, and he was considering a career as an emergency medicine physician.
He decided that one day, he could be sitting in a medical school interview and might be asked, “What did you do to help the community during the pandemic?” Buck wanted to have an answer.
But getting hired required a stroke of good luck. Every applicant had to call the same phone number at 5:30 p.m. on a Monday. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of workers were calling at once, and only those whose calls that were answered could be hired.
When he didn’t get through the first time, he called again. And again. Two hundred attempts later, he got through. After a 10-minute conversation, the call taker asked, “Can you be in South Texas on Wednesday by 8 p.m.?” Buck had two days to transport himself 1,700 miles. He paused.
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s fine.”
He texted his mom. Tell Dad to cancel his flight, he said. Buck and his father would drive to Texas together. “And I need black scrubs.”
As a kid, Buck was curious, and he always surrounded himself with other people, his dad said. When he was 16, he became a volunteer with the Forest View Rescue Squad. After graduating from
Mills Godwin High School, he attended Virginia Tech and kept working as an EMT in his spare time.
Buck and his father drove 25 hours to Texas in Jason’s pickup truck, and Jason tried to prepare his son for what he was about to encounter. There would be no orientation.
“You’re thrown to the wolves, and you’re going to have to figure it out as you go,” Jason told him.
They were eventually assigned to the night shift, working 12 hours straight. There were no days off, and Cameron Buck’s responsibilities included performing CPR, checking vital signs and changing catheter bags.
He was certain to witness death. But he had to bury that sadness inside him. There were always more patients who would need him. If he needed to talk, his dad was always there.
The hospital staff was burned out, and some were sick with the virus. The approximately 200 volunteers were assigned to treat COVID-19 patients, and Buck was sent to Serious Infectious Disease Unit 1, where the sickest were housed. Originally designed as a hospice facility, the wing of the hospital included a large room with beds separated by curtains.
Most of the patients were intubated and sedated. Others would be sitting up, breathing and talking during one moment. The next, they had coded; their heart had stopped.
Many of the volunteer workers were in their 20s like Buck, an age group less likely to need hospitalization if they caught the virus. Many of them were budding medical professionals, and they were shocked at the number of patients who were on the verge of death.
“I think a lot of people were affected by the amount of death and the heartache that comes with it,” said Mikayla Pipher, 21, a nursing assistant from Pennsylvania who worked alongside Buck. “Because you can’t help all of them— or even most of them.”
Since the pandemic began, more than 2,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Hidalgo County. In the larger Rio Grande Valley, one-third of families live in poverty, and almost half have no health insurance. The population is predominantly Latino, a group that has died from the virus at a higher rate than whites.
From his third-floor hotel room, Buck could see the Mexico border. At the hospital, he was responsible for six beds, and on a bad day, he’d begin his shift by learning that half of his patients had died while he was gone. The line of beds where he worked became known by the staff as “death row.”
There was an older female patient who spoke Spanish and referred to Buck and her other caregivers as “mi amor.” Buck spoke only a little Spanish from his high school and college classes, and he made out some of what she said.
The woman had a donot-resuscitate order, and she asked not to be intubated. It was tough watching her in her final hours, gasping for air, isolated from everyone she knew, Buck said. A hospital employee held her hand through every moment. His shift ended at 6 a.m., and the woman died minutes later. Buck still thinks about her smile.
The young caregivers leaned on one another. Buck bonded with Pipher and another young EMT from Massachusetts.
Older workers who knew that Buck aspired to be a doctor went out of their way to teach him. Outside of work, there was little time for socialization. Each day, he would work, shower, eat and sleep. The days went by quickly.
On the morning of July 25, Hurricane Hanna, a Category 1 storm, made landfall on top of Hidalgo County. The flat, open roads began to flood, and the day shift workers were
told to stay at their hotel. The night shift was told to keep working.
The sun came up, and Buck stepped outside the hospital to see the parking lot filled with water. Later, the lights went out, and the caregivers had to unplug essential equipment from the wall outlets and attach them to backup generators.
The hours dragged on, and the sleep-deprived employees kept working. Finally at 4 p.m., 22 hours after their shift began, they were allowed to go. Buck and the others squeezed into a white, 12-seat van that drove through standing water that splashed over the hood. When he returned
to his hotel room, he immediately passed out on the bed.
Whenhe arrived in Hidalgo, he wanted to see how many consecutive days he could work. When he reached 31, he decided he was ready to go home.
His month in Texas, Buck said, helped him get in touch with his patients as people. As an EMT riding an ambulance, his interactions with patients lasted only as long as the ride to the hospital. Now, he was serving them food and taking phone calls from their family members. Buck has thought more about his career choice, and maybe emergency medicine, where doctors typically spend only a few hours with their patients, isn’t right for him.
“Wherever the wind takes me,” he said.
Should the call go out again, Buck said he is prepared to return to a COVID-19-ravaged community to work. He could balance his classes, which are all online, working at night and studying in the day. He’ll graduate in the spring with a bachelor’s degree in systems biology.
Before he could leave, Buck had to produce a negative test. If he was positive, he would have to quarantine with pay before going home.
He drove his dad’s truck to a testing site and had his nose swabbed. He was told to drive to the nearby parking lot next to the church and wait for his result. To his left, he could see a woman being handed her fate. She began to cry. The word “positive” was written in bold capital letters on her form. To his right, a man was given his own positive result. Buck got nervous.
Then the sheet with Buck’s result was walked to him and handed into the truck. Across the top was the word “negative.”
The following morning, Buck ate a 4 a.m. breakfast at Whataburger, filled his dad’s truck with gasoline and walked a short distance to the airport. His dad would spend another seven weeks there. Hours later, after two layovers, he landed in Richmond, where his mother and sister, Emma, were waiting.
He decided not to take the risk. He decided not to give them a hug.