Nichole Meuse, an experienced physician assistant, recognized fairly early in the coronavirus pandemic that frontline workers like her ER colleagues at Overlook Medical Center in Summit, N.J., were in danger of running out of face masks and other protective gear. She came up with a plan to help: Raise money to buy masks. Coordinate their acquisition. Distribute them ASAP.
Sounds simple. It was anything but.
Meuse needed $21,000 to buy 168 P95 reusable masks, 2,000 filters, 800 KN95 single-use masks, and 1,000 pairs of surgical gloves. She did not know it then, but her effort would hurl her into a grinding monthlong binge of fund-raising, late-night phone calls, cutthroat purchasing deals, and bureaucratic red tape.
Through a mutual friend, Meuse connected in March with Amy Heller, a Villanova graduate and founder of WGIRLS Inc., a New York-based national nonprofit that empowers women and children in underserved communities. Heller grew up near Overlook, in Clark, N.J., and was moved by Meuse’s cause and energy.
With a tight deadline — every day until delivery posed a danger of infection to the ER staff — Meuse and Heller created a donations page on the wgirls.org website and, using word of mouth and social media, raised $21,000 in 21 whirlwind days from 215 contributors.
One, a North Jersey Realtor and investor named Harry Page, had been in a hospital bed at Overlook a month earlier with back problems. He remembered Meuse’s bedside manner as being “uplifting” and “encouraging,” and he was quick to help when he came across Meuse’s WGIRLS donation page on Facebook.
“I felt like there was a higher power at play here in bringing us together,” he said.
“Harry did a lot,” Heller said.
“He was huge,” Meuse added.
Another contributor was longtime New York entrepreneur Hattie Elliot. The founder of several businesses, she is especially adept at finding and moving goods from one place to another. So, she and Meuse and Heller — connected again through a mutual friend — spent a hectic, no-sleep, anxiety-filled two weeks in late March scouring the world for the right masks.
They wound up making calls to China and all over the United States at all hours of every day, and they scanned eBay just in case. They had to compete with other desperate suppliers and governments at all levels not only for masks but transportation to get them here. And they could have missed a bargain if they were asleep when a late-night call was returned from anywhere in China.
“I didn’t need an alarm clock," Heller said, "because I didn’t sleep.”
As with other private donations, Meuse’s masks had to be inventoried and inspected by Overlook officials before distribution. That process continues, but the ER staff began wearing Meuse’s masks on April 9, and more put them on every day.
“We at Overlook Medical Center are honored by the generous outpouring of donations, from masks and face shields to water and energy bars, that we have received over the past two months from organizations and individuals like Nichole Meuse," Overlook officials said in a statement.
It is no surprise to anyone who knows Meuse that she undertook this mission. The 42-year-old native of Wurtsboro, N.Y., about 80 miles east of Scranton, is a Type-A personality who has dashed headfirst into medical challenges her whole life.
Raised by a single mother — she was a paramedic, too — Meuse knew from the start that she wanted to help people and never “be stuck between four walls.” So, she became certified in CPR at 12, a first responder at 16, emergency medical technician at 18, and paramedic at 19.
She studied biology and psychology at the University of Charleston, wound up with a load of degrees and certificates — “learning is a part of who I am,” she said — and decided to join a police department’s emergency service unit. Then she got hired as a New York Police Department street cop at 22 and started her climb up.
Seven years later, the quest ended when she tore up her knee chasing a fleeing suspect over a wall. Meuse dropped off the force in 2007, worked jobs as a paramedic, and became a physician assistant in 2014.
She became a whistleblower in 2016 in a medical billing false claims case in the Lehigh Valley. Philadelphia attorney Dave Caputo represented her against Coordinated Health Holding Co. and others, in a case that returned $1 million from the defendants, $170,000 of which went to Meuse as the whistleblower.
Meuse had planned to use some of her new money to complete the mask drive. But she collected enough PPE without it, and the check didn’t drop until mid-April anyway.
Caputo, now watching from afar, remains impressed. He said Meuse was courageous in filing her whistleblower suit, and he was not surprised that she succeeded in her mask mission. He noted how she also overcame a debilitating car accident last year that laid her up for three months and required neck surgery.
“I think it’s important to notice when people do good things,” Caputo said.
Meuse, who joined the Overlook ER as a physician assistant in 2017, left the hospital on April 9 as the COVID-19 crisis eased there. She filled in for the next few weeks at other hospitals that needed extra hands, and now she is taking a break at home in Hardwick, N.J.
Divorced for a few years, she is spending time with her rescue dogs, Moby and Harlequin. Her 11-year-old son, Caleb, has been with Meuse’s mother and stepfather for three months, ever since Meuse was forced into the world of COVID-19.
She said she may travel a bit when things open up and get back to the rock climbing and skiing and scuba diving she’s missed. She said she’s stepping away for now from “death and destruction,” but that does not mean she won’t return to the health-care front lines.
“It was heartbreaking to be with some patients as they died,” Meuse said. “But it seemed like what I was supposed to do. I’d do it all over again. Things happen for a reason, and I think I can be of more use.”