In August of last year, ICU nurse Jill Hansen of Utah visited the 9/11 memorial in New York and posed for a photo with her three teenage children by the southern of the twin memorial pools inscribed with the names of the 2,753 dead.
The south pool is the one bearing the names of the first responders who died seeking to save others and touched what is best in us with their example. The 41-year-old single mom returned home saying how remarkable it had been for her and the kids to actually stand there.
“It was a special experience for her,” her best friend and fellow nurse, Holly Pike, told The Daily Beast. “She and her family, they absolutely loved that whole experience, to be down there and to see all that. She talked about it a lot when she came back.”
Hansen did not anticipate that she herself would soon face a test of courage in a continuing calamity that has dwarfed the 9/11 toll with more than 300,000 and rising.
When COVID-19 hit in February, Hansen and her co-workers proved as brave in their Provo ICU as was any first responder at the World Trade Center on 9/11. She was already known to be what a fellow nurse terms “a badass nurse,” uncommonly skilled and resourceful, the personification of grace and compassion as she did whatever she could for those in her charge. She summoned everything she had, patient by patient, hour by hour, shift after shift in the fight against the virus.
Hansen conveyed with her voice what she might have with a smile had she not been masked. She sought to relieve the bleakness of isolation with a squeeze of a gloved hand. She made sure that the patients could stay in touch with their families by phone.
And all the while, she risked becoming infected herself.
“We wear our masks and we wear all our stuff, but when you’re in it all day every day, it’s still there and still all around you,” Pike noted.
On Halloween, Hansen fell ill and tested positive for COVID-19. She had no underlying medical conditions. She exercised regularly. She would go for a six-mile run as nonchalantly as others might just take a brief stroll.
But the virus can be as unpredictable as it is deadly, and after six days at home, Hansen was having such difficulty breathing that she was admitted to her own hospital. Pike arrived for a shift to learn that Hansen was now a patient in the ICU where they had been working together for six years. Pike opened the door to Hansen’s room and there was her friend.
“Jill, I love you,’” Pike told her.
“I love you, too,” Hansen said.
Pike recalls, “We just had this moment. She was like, ‘Can you believe I’m here?’ I was like, ‘I can’t actually believe it.’”
Pike and the other nurses decorated Hansen’s room and bought her comfortable clothes and socks, and generally did whatever they could for her. COVID-19 was still COVID-19, and she became sicker and sicker despite their best efforts to help her and her own best efforts to beat it.
“She’s a fighter,” Pike said, adding, “It was definitely hard to take care of her because it is hard to see your friend suffer,”
On Nov. 13, Hansen was intubated. She periodically emerged from sedation to convey with sign language what she could no longer voice.
“I love you.”
The virus had trashed her lungs beyond the point that a ventilator could sustain her. She was transported by helicopter to a hospital in Murray that has an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine that can take over a patient’s respiratory and circulatory systems.
Fifteen months after the photo was taken of her standing at the 9/11 memorial pool along with her two daughters and son, somebody took a picture of the younger girl standing beside Hansen’s hospital bed. The daughter is holding Hansen’s hand. Blood can be seen in the thick, clear tube of the ECMO machine, on the way to being cleansed of carbon dioxide and reoxygenated before being returned.
“My mom is fighting for her life,” the older daughter says in a video she posted on Facebook on Nov. 17. “You see, she works in the shock trauma ICU which means she has to deal with COVID every day. She comes home exhausted and with tears in her eyes. But now instead of dealing with it she has to live it. My mom is young and healthy and now she can’t breathe on her own.”
But even ECMO was not enough.
On Dec. 6, Hansen was flown to a hospital in Gainesville, Florida, that has had some success with double lung transplants for COVID-19 patients. The medical staff there began a series of tests to see if she was a viable candidate.
Meanwhile, Pike launched a GoFundMe page to help Hansen with her medical bills and her kids’ basic needs.
“Because Jill is everyone’s hero,” the page reads. “Our girl Jill is the most incredible human and bad ass nurse we know! She’s also the greatest mom, friend, confidant, advocate, and fighter. Everything she does, she does with a smile and she brings a light to everyone’s life that is undeniable. She has so selflessly taken care of the sickest COVID-19 patients in the ICU this whole year, but this virus is no respecter of persons.”
As Hansen continues her fight for her life, Pike was given the COVID-19 vaccine and could only wish it had been in time for her best friend. Pike spoke to The Daily Beast about better days in the ICU and recalled a patient who asked for a Diet Pepsi. Pike had responded that the hospital does not stock that particular soda.
“Well, Jill got me one,” the patient told Pike.
Pike later asked Hansen how she came up with one.
“Oh, on my lunch break I ran to a grocery store,” Hansen said.
Pike told The Daily Beast, “She just makes time to make everybody happy. She just always takes time to do the little care things that make the patient’s stay a little bit special and help them to get better quicker.”
But Hansen could be a taskmaster when needed, pushing her patients to get up and walk as soon as they were able. And if they could not walk, she would get them to sit in a chair.
“If not sitting in a chair, then in a chair position in their bed,” Pike said. “She is always pushing them to do the most they can, encouraging them, telling them, ‘I know that it hurts, I know it’s hard, but you can do it.’”
The result would be manifest when Pike came in to work a night shift after Jill had been on during the day.
“You can tell her patients have had a great day, and it’s because she was on,” Pike said.
At the same time, Hansen was raising three kids and finishing her studies to become a nurse practitioner.
Then came COVID. The everyday decency and dedication of health-care workers such as Hansen transcended into courage to match that of the first responders who strode without hesitation into the burning towers. And after she fell ill, her comrades keep doing it.
The example set by heroes such as Hansen should touch what is best in us just as the heroes of 9/11 did.
“Nurses, I just want to appreciate you real quick,” Hansen’s older daughter also says in her video. “You guys deserve the world. Thank you so much for helping and healing and saving people. You guys are amazing.”
The daughter also had a message for the rest of us.
“Guys, I just want to bring this to your attention,” she said. “COVID is really dangerous. Please wear your masks and social distance. Keep yourselves, your friends, and your family safe.”
On Monday, Pike reported that Hansen is fighting on with hope of a double transplant. She continues to raise a hand to sign what she cannot voice.
“She’s still saying, ‘I love you,’” Pike said.