Called to the Crisis
On her birthday last year, Megan Warth ’00 woke up in Venice, Italy, to a cup of coffee and a beautiful view of the canal.
Warth spent her birthday in 2019 exploring the city with her husband, eating Italian gelato, and enjoying “one of the best dinners I have ever had.”
On her birthday this year, Warth woke up in an empty hotel room in New York. Her husband and kids were nearly 3,000 miles away.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Lt. Cmdr. Warth, a Navy reservist labor and delivery nurse, had taken a red-eye from Seattle to New York City where she had volunteered to work at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan as part of the Navy’s crisis response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
After waiting in line for eight hours outside New York City’s Javits Center, she finally completed the check-in process. She and her Navy colleagues found two corner delis still open during lockdown. They bought a few slices of red velvet cake, Warth’s favorite, and gathered (socially distanced) in the hotel lobby for cake and deli sandwiches.
When the birthday dinner was over, Warth headed back to her empty room. She swung open the door to find it filled with the scent of fresh lilies. Her husband, Jason, had sent a bouquet of flowers along with candy and a few snacks. She ended her birthday with a call to her family back home. It definitely wasn’t Venice, but it was exactly what she needed in that moment.
Warth has spent her 20-year career working in women’s health. As nurses around the country volunteered to fly to New York, Warth knew she had to join them. “So many people were suffering,” she said. “I felt like I had to help. I felt scared, but also really honored to be chosen to be a part of that group and forge into the unknown.”
For two months, Warth worked on the front lines of the pandemic.
The time away from her husband and their kids — Jackson, 16; Sydney, 15; and Jayden, 12 — was incredibly difficult, but their support kept her going. The day before she left, Sydney gave her a handmade necklace with two charms: one of an anchor and another that said, “Mom.”
That evening, Warth’s father-in-law called to pray Psalm 91 over her. “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust …’
“…under his wings you will find refuge; His faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. You will not fear the terror of night … nor the plague that destroys at midday.”
Throughout her time in New York, Warth regularly encountered this scripture. At the hospital chaplain’s table, she saw the passage. One day, as she was leaving Target dressed in her military nursing uniform, a mother and daughter behind her in line rushed to catch her. They thanked her for her service and asked if they could share a scripture to encourage her. It was Psalm 91.
“I felt like every step of the way, everywhere I went, I couldn’t get away from God telling me he was there,” she laughed.
Across the city, COVID-19 patients filled intensive care units and emergency rooms. When they no longer required ICU support, they were transferred to medical/surgical units. Warth was paired with a med/surg nurse to help her adjust to a different nursing role than labor and delivery.
“The nurses, before we arrived, were so burned out and so overwhelmed,” Warth said. “They had been working so many hours for so long, just to keep patients alive.”
Warth had only been in New York a few days when her first patient died — a 33-year-old mother of two. The experience left Warth shell shocked.
“It hit me really hard because she was a mom like me. She was younger than me,” Warth said. “It was just a harsh reality. These children just lost their mom.”
Warth’s floor had fewer deaths than the ICU, but they still called the rapid response team for resuscitation anywhere from five to 30 times a night.
Warth often hears people say COVID-19 is only a danger for the elderly, the immunocompromised, or those with preexisting illnesses. In New York, she saw firsthand this wasn’t true.
She thinks of an 18-year-old boy who was on a ventilator for four weeks in the ICU. “This was a young, healthy, athletic kid … I have a son who is 16, not much younger than him,” Warth said. “It could have been my son.”
Warth hopes people understand how serious the pandemic actually is. “Wear a mask,” she said. “Do it for your friends. Do it for your family. Do it for your community.”
During her 12-hour night shifts, Warth worked alongside Lt. Anna Beaman, an operating room nurse from Indianapolis, Indiana. Beaman remembers a patient who, after a long recovery, was becoming more cognizant and talking more.
It was too dangerous for his wife to visit. Doctors and nurses had to wear extensive personal protective equipment just to enter a COVID-19 room, so the family decided to visit via FaceTime. But the patient hadn’t shaved in over six weeks. He wanted to look more like himself.
Warth gathered shaving supplies, warm water, and carefully worked until his beard (formerly reminiscent of Tom Hanks in Castaway) was completely removed.
“Megan cares about people so much,” Beaman said. “I get goosebumps thinking about how good of a nurse she is.”
Today, Warth is back home in Washington, serving as the director of obstetrics at Optum home health in Everett. She manages nurses who work with high-risk pregnant women and also picks up labor and delivery shifts at Seattle’s Swedish Medical Center.
“I always felt like nursing was not just a job for me, it was truly a calling,” Warth said. “I feel called to serve God’s people however I can, in the way that he’s given me the skills for.”