A New Sense of Purpose

A nurse practitioner in a New York hospital shares her experiences (and anxieties)

By Jordana Kozupsky Bel / Special to the BJV

Jordana Kozupsky Bel (in black scrubs) is a nurse practitioner specializing in palliative care at a hospital in Long Island, NY, and the daughter of Leslie Kozupsky, Federation’s development officer. This is adapted from her response to Rabbi Aaron Brusso of Bet Torah in Mt. Kisco, NY, who asked his congregants in the medical professions to share their stories of coping during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I've been struggling morally/ethically/Jewishly with balancing my role as a frontline healthcare provider with my own fear of infecting my family – and myself.

When the coronavirus crisis exploded, my family was on vacation in Colorado. We played the news nonstop, and it was frightening. As I am a control freak and a planner, my worries about what was going on back in New York were nonstop. What were other hospitals doing to prepare? What were my hospital’s plans to ration personal protective equipment (PPE)? How was the morale at the place I'd been at almost daily for years?

I was angry, frustrated, and feeling perhaps the most difficult emotion – disappointment in myself. My disappointment stemmed from the fact that the strongest emotion I felt was fear. I was terrified of getting sick, of dying – this, of course, was completely irrational, as I'm young and healthy with zero co-morbidities, literally the person we need most on the frontlines. At the same time, I felt very strongly that I did not need to expose myself by being at the hospital in order to do my job.

During those days in Colorado, I felt as though I was given a glimpse into who I truly was – a coward. I saw this, and accepted this. It was what it was. I felt absolutely certain that I was not the type of person who would sacrifice her life for others. Good for the other providers who felt otherwise, but not for me. I didn't sign up to die.

Although I accepted that feeling, soon came the uneasiness. The guilt. As the granddaughter of German-Jewish refugees, I kept thinking about the Holocaust. Many people who were in the camps would say that they survived solely by sheer luck, but what about the non-Jews that risked their own lives to shelter us, clothe us, and feed us during that time? Many of our people wouldn't be here without them and here I was, a direct descendent of someone who was sheltered by a non-Jewish family, and I was basically saying that I wouldn't do the same. I couldn't wrap my head around that. I felt like I was betraying my past by being scared, and not fulfilling tikkun olam by being reluctant to help others in the capacity in which I am knowledgeable and skilled.

But life goes on, even for a coward. We flew back home from Colorado (first sanitizing our seats, of course), and I went back to work the next day. Are you ready for some more honesty – it wasn’t because I was driven to help. I was still scared shitless. But I also have an overpriced NYC rent to pay, and when I floated the idea of quitting, my husband politely pointed out our ever-growing bills. So I returned to the hospital. I normally love my job, the challenge it presents to help the dying, to help those with the lowest chance of survival experience a dignified death. Most of the time, I speak with their families, and I am faced with the challenge of painting a picture that they cannot, and do not, want to see, and presenting a new reality that they do not want to face. Now, I wanted no part of it.

And day by day, my fear lessened as I found my niche. I got creative and crafty, working within the confines of new, controversial rules and figuring out a way to see close to double the number of patients I normally do while minimizing my own risk as much as possible. I like to think this is how my grandparents did it when they were in a place of severe restriction in Germany – they may have felt helpless and scared, but they still acted so as to find hope.

Now we are a few weeks in, and I view things differently. I am no longer afraid of the small risk of death if I contract the disease, but I am afraid that there will be people that I cannot help should I become sick. The role that my team plays in palliative care is vital in addressing the needs of this new tragically-ill population. I’ve also found more ways to help by teaming up with both strangers and close family friends to gather and distribute large donations of PPE to various departments at my own and different hospitals in need, the majority of which originate from the Afya Foundation (a non-profit organization, its mission “to improve global health by rescuing surplus medical supplies and delivering them to underserved health systems around the world”).

I have rediscovered a sense of purpose, born of helping others in a new way. I truly feel as though I’ve been put in my role not just to help with the frightening numbers of the dying, but also to help in a small way to keep my counterparts safe and alive.

I've lived a very privileged life, and grew up hearing of the necessity of philanthropy and charity from my grandparents and parents, but I've never truly experienced it until now.  I am immersed in it, and feel a different sense of purpose when I go to work every day.

Instead of anger, fear, and guilt, I feel nothing but pride.

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