The calls started coming in faster than she could answer them, filling the nurse’s voice mail with dozens of messages:

“This is regarding the crisis.” “I need to discuss this with you.” “If you could give me a call back.”

Jen Caserta sat on the deck of her apartment in Chadds Ford, on the southern edge of Delaware County. She played back the voice mails, wondering what to do. For several weeks now, recruiters had been e-mailing and calling Caserta, asking her to come to New York or New Jersey; hospitals there have been overrun with COVID-19 patients, and are desperate for staff to treat them.

The recruiters offered Caserta, an operating-room nurse, a crash course in critical-care nursing. They would train her to monitor anesthesia levels, to insert a ventilator tube on the first try. The mother of three, who sometimes flinches at her cellphone bill, could make $5,500 in one week, triple what she normally earns.

“Hi Jennifer, good afternoon." “This message is for Jennifer.” “Jennifer, could you give me a call back, or you could even text me."

Most of all, Caserta thought, she could give a break to another health-care worker on the front lines. Caserta, an agency nurse, had recently finished an assignment at Penn Medicine and had at least a month before her next job would start. “I feel like my people are out there, and they need my help," she said.

“But at the same time, I have three kids I want to keep healthy.”

Her eldest, Jenna, wants to be a nurse like her mom. The boys, Justin and Christian, love baseball and hate being apart from Caserta for too long.

Sitting on a lounge chair on her deck, Caserta stared at the trees that hadn’t bloomed yet. She listened to the sound of the cars on the highway and pretended they were ocean waves, that she was on a beach in California, like the last assignment she accepted that took her away from her family.

She had a decision to make, and she didn’t know how she was going to do it.

More voice mails piled up.

“Looking forward to hearing from you....”

‘How do I stay home?’

Becoming a mother made her want to become a nurse.

In 2002, at age 21, Caserta gave birth to Jenna. “I was young and scared, and I did not have a good delivery,” she said.

At the time, Caserta was taking classes toward a degree in computer and information management at Neumann University in Aston, the town where she grew up. But she was struck by the kindness of her nurses in the delivery room. “You could tell they really cared," she said. "That’s one thing I’ve noticed about nursing: You can have your whole heart in it.”

She decided to switch majors, enrolling in chemistry, anatomy, and physiology. One day, during a medical-surgical rotation, Caserta was invited to observe inside an operating room. “Come up behind me,” the surgeon said to Caserta. She stood on a stool, watching over the surgeon’s shoulder as he cleared buildup from an artery in a woman’s neck.

Caserta knew then that she wanted to become an operating room nurse. She took time off from school when she had her boys — Christian in 2006 and Justin in 2008 — then graduated from Neumann in 2009.

Jennifer Caserta at work as an operating room nurse in 2017. Caserta is now trying to decide whether to answer recruiters' calls to treat COVID-19 patients in New York, or to stay home and safe with her three children in Delaware County.
Courtesy Jennifer Caserta
Jennifer Caserta at work as an operating room nurse in 2017. Caserta is now trying to decide whether to answer recruiters' calls to treat COVID-19 patients in New York, or to stay home and safe with her three children in Delaware County.

For a few years, she worked for Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington. But in 2013, going through a divorce, she decided to leave for Orange County, Calif., and work for the first time as a “travel nurse”: a free agent who goes to hospitals that pay extra in times of need.

She worked 12-hour overnight shifts, slept all day on the beach, and then went back to work. She missed her children terribly. With the extra money she was earning, she flew home on the weekends to see them. After eight weeks, she came home for good.

Most of her experience has been in orthopedic surgery, replacing hips and knees and shoulders. She’s seen trauma, too, working at Cooper University Hospital in Camden. This was hard on her. One night she’d be assisting doctors with a craniotomy — brain surgery — on a 2-year-old; the next night, she’d help with harvesting their organs for donation.

At the end of 2017, Caserta moved in with her parents to take care of her sick father. After he died last summer, she got the apartment in Chadds Ford and took the assignment with Penn as an intake coordinator for kidney and pancreas transplants.

As February turned into March, talk of COVID-19 was intensifying. Caserta began wearing a mask as she took the train into Philadelphia each day. At the clinic’s entrance, staff took her temperature. Hers was always normal.

Then one night in the middle of March, Caserta shot up in bed with a 103-degree fever. She had an upset stomach, too. At Penn’s coronavirus testing site in Radnor, Caserta sat in her car with tears streaming down her face. She thought, “This can’t be happening.”

As she waited for her test results, Caserta quarantined at home with Jenna. A senior at Sun Valley High School, the school her mother graduated from, Jenna is training to become an emergency medicine technician, or EMT. She has a full ride at Neumann, where she plans to study nursing.

Together they let the mail pile up, afraid to touch it or even go outside. They FaceTimed with the boys, who stayed at their father’s house a few miles away.

Caserta at a bowling alley with her 14-year-old son, Christian (left), and 12-year-old son, Justin.
Courtesy Jennifer Caserta
Caserta at a bowling alley with her 14-year-old son, Christian (left), and 12-year-old son, Justin.

Christian, the older of the two, is all about wrestling and working out. Justin is his mother’s mini-me, calm and low-key. He likes to play baseball and ride his bike.

Through the cellphone screen, Caserta told them both how much she missed them. She was also starting to miss calls. Recruiters left her messages asking her to travel to cities hard-hit by the coronavirus. At first the callers talked about Seattle. Then more of them began to ask about New York City.

On March 30, when 1,200 people had died in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo begged health-care workers from across the country to come to his city. "We need relief,” he said, speaking from a makeshift hospital in Manhattan.

Jenna said she did not want her mom to go: “I don’t want her to put her life at risk.” The teenager had already missed so much this year. She would not get to wear the dress she had bought for prom. She would not walk across a stage in a cap and gown. “It kind of got yanked away,” Jenna said.

She would understand if her mother had to go, Jenna said. But “I’d rather her stay out of harm’s way.”

Caserta said she told her daughter, “Just imagine you’re in the military and the whole crew’s going off to war and you’re like, ‘Mmm, I’m going to stay home, see you guys, good luck.'

"It’s our war, you know? How do I stay home?”

No right decision

On April 1, another kind of phone call found its way to Caserta: Her test results. She was negative for COVID-19.

After she hung up, she could have called back a recruiter. It’s what she had planned to do. But as relief fell over her, Caserta instead took a breath and thought, “Thank God I can see my boys again.”

As she drove over to see them, she thought about how much she missed Jenna and the boys when she was in California. “I think protecting our children as mothers is the most important thing,” she said. “You want them to be happy, and you want them to feel safe.”

They would be scared if she went to New York, she thought. And if she ended up contracting the virus, how long would she be away from them?

But then she thought about all the doctors and nurses who were moms and dads, who were working in the hospitals.

Caserta at work in November 2017.
Courtesy Jennifer Caserta
Caserta at work in November 2017.

“It’s — am I being selfish, or am I being a good mom?” Caserta asked herself. “That’s where I’m at, because I could go give one of these moms a break. I could be making a difference, I could be helping, or I could sit here and be safe."

She started to do what she always does when she’s not sure, whether it’s about bills or a relationship: She made a spreadsheet. On one side, she listed the “pros” of going.

  • I’d be helping people.
  • I’d make good money.
  • I’d be on the front lines, giving someone a break.

On the other side, she wrote the “cons”:

  • I’m putting myself at risk.
  • I’m not going to see my children.
  • I’m a mom first.

There was no right decision, and there was no wrong decision, but for her, that’s what made it: I’m a mom first. She would stay.

The next time a recruiter called, she let it go to voice mail.

(From left) Justin Ford, 12; Jen Caserta; Jenna Ford, 17; and Christian Ford, 14, outside of their apartment in Chadds Ford, Pa.
MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer
(From left) Justin Ford, 12; Jen Caserta; Jenna Ford, 17; and Christian Ford, 14, outside of their apartment in Chadds Ford, Pa.

Staff photographer Monica Herndon contributed to this article.