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Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Cassidy Toben, nurse manager at Northwell Health’s Lenox Hill Hospital’s emergency department, has never lost sight of her call of duty to patients and colleagues.
What makes Toben’s efforts extraordinarily heroic is that her own health was under attack even while she was going to bat each day for so many others.
Diagnosed with a very rare eye cancer with a high mortality rate six years ago, 31-year-old Toben had been receiving monthly chemotherapy treatments, a plan she must endure for the rest of her life in order to prevent vision loss.
Yet in order to keep working, she had to put her treatment on hold.
“To me, being a nurse always meant putting other people before yourself,” she said.
Yet this selfless act could mean potentially losing some vision and jeopardizing the progress she had made toward beating cancer.
“It was disheartening to feel like I had gone through years of getting shots in my eye every month just to potentially lose my vision during the most challenging times in my professional career,” she said. “One of my struggles during the pandemic was recognizing my own needs as a patient, but wanting to put everything I had into my patients.”
So, Toben went to work on the front line, despite concerns from loved ones.
“My family was nervous that I was even going to work as a cancer patient,” she said.
Toben, who lives in Weehawken, NJ, discovered her passion for tending to others at age 14 as part of a local hospital volunteer program.
“I saw how patients loved having someone bedside to talk with and tell stories to. I liked being that person for them. It drove me to want to care for them,” said Toben.
Yet it was the fast-paced movement of the emergency department that drew Toben in, and it later became the perfect fit for her professionally.
“I like not knowing a patient’s diagnosis and solving the mystery of what’s going on,” she said. “Seeing the most vulnerable and being able to fix them is so rewarding. I’ve always been someone who likes to be in the chaos.”
When COVID hit last March, the disorder that Toben was used to escalated to unimaginable heights.
“It was a domino effect. Everyone suddenly started going downhill. It was so overwhelming, how quickly and how many would deteriorate and how many would die.
It’s part of what ER nurses see, but not to these numbers. We’re used to one death a shift, not eight or nine. It was exhausting, taxing and tragic,” said Toben.
The feeling of helplessness was the most challenging thing.
“The whole reason we as nurses go into the field is to help, care and make patients feel better. When there’s nothing you can do as you watch a person gasp for air and looking to you for the answer — for you to help them and save them and to see that fear in their eyes — memories of these people will stay in our minds forever,” said Toben.
One particularly tough day stands out among the rest.
“I came to hospital looking for parking on 76th Street and saw the morgue truck outside.
I bent over and started crying. You know what’s happening, but it didn’t hit me until you see it outside. There were more patients than even what a hospital can handle. It was a really emotional moment for me,” she said.
Fortunately, Toben’s team rallied together.
“If one of us was bedside with a deteriorating patient, the team was just behind you, ready to help. No one shied away from supporting others,” she said.
“Clappy Hour,” referring to the 7 p.m. public applause and cheering which occurred daily during the heat of the pandemic, also inspired Toben’s department.
“To have not just a team, but the whole community showing support for what we were doing was inspirational and motivated me to keep going,” said Toben.
As fate had it, Toben herself contracted COVID back in the spring.
“I knew right away it was COVID,” she said. “I was congested and weak, lost taste and smell for a month, which was brutal. I was out of work for two weeks. It’s hard to be quarantined when you want to be back at work, supportive of your colleagues.”
Married for almost two years, Toben’s husband and parents helped to sustain her spirits throughout the entire period.
“I’m grateful for such a supportive family,” she said.
A couple of nurse co-workers also got COVID, but fortunately, all survived, said Toben.
“A couple of them were admitted to the hospital, which was the most terrifying thing. As a manager, you feel so accountable for your staff, especially those you feel close to and love. We’re like a family,” she said.
The silver lining for Toben was her passion for her work.
“Just as I need to be there for my patients, you don’t want to leave your colleagues behind,” she said. “It was unifying for health-care workers to be together and show up for each other at this time. You’re going into the battlefield, but knowing I’d be with others I care about, and that these folks want to care for people motivates me.”
In her position, in charge of 130 ER nurses and techs, “You don’t get the same reward as a bedside nurse, but my reward is that my team is happy, fulfilled and wants to come to work to deliver the highest quality care and keep patients happy,” said Toben.
She’s chosen to put her own family-planning plans on hold due to COVID, since “the most important thing right now is to get to work and commit to what we set out to do.
We made this commitment to be in this field and want to make sure we put everything we have in to our careers.”
As for being considered a hero, “I don’t see myself as one at all,” said Toben. “This is my job, my passion, my career, my love to take care of people in their most vulnerable, sickest time.”
In fact, Toben considers herself to be one of the lucky ones.
“For some people, not being able to get treatment during this crisis may have had severe consequences, and I often think about those people,” she said. “Having an eye cancer diagnosis, which has a very high mortality rate, has given me the opportunity to reflect on how lucky and grateful I am to be alive and healthy. I feel extra thankful to be a cancer survivor and now a COVID survivor, too.”