An Emergency Department Nurse Gives the Gift of Normalcy One Haircut at a Time

Meet Nick Harrison, a nurse at NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital and a former professional barber who offered his co-workers free haircuts amid the COVID crisis.

Nick Harrison started working in a barbershop on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn when he was 17 years old. After five years of cutting hair, he gave up barbering to become an emergency medical technician and paramedic with the Fire Department of New York City and then a registered nurse at NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital.

When the coronavirus crisis hit, Nick, like other clinical front-line staff, including his wife, Bianca, a nurse at NewYork-Presbyterian Allen Hospital, and his older son, an EMT, became immersed in responding to the influx of COVID-19 patients. For Nick, who works in the Brooklyn hospital’s Emergency Department, this meant not only treating more patients — both COVID-19 patients and people who came to the ED for other emergencies — but also training nurses who had been reassigned to the ED as well as nurses who came to help from other states.

Then one day in March, a colleague and nurse technician who heard that Nick used to be a barber asked if he could get a haircut since barbershops and hair salons had closed. Nick agreed, brought in his clippers the next day, and set up a space in a locker room near the nursing station. On his lunch break, he gave his friend a haircut.

From left to right: Nick Harrison, his son Isaiah and wife, Bianca

Setting up an impromptu barbershop was the last thing on Nick’s mind as he juggled handling his increased patient load, training nurses, and taking classes to earn a master’s degree to become a nurse practitioner.

But word soon got out that he could give a professional-grade haircut, and he did it for free. Nick decided to leave his clippers in his locker so any of his co-workers who wanted a cut could let him know and he would find the time. He started coming in early and sticking around after his shift to cut, shape, or edge the hair of his colleagues. He began waking up a couple of hours earlier and going to bed a couple of hours later so he could fit in haircuts on top of his intensified work responsibilities.

“It went from one head a day to two heads, then three heads. One day I had 15 heads,” he recalls, adding that his “customers” weren’t just his nursing colleagues. Everyone, including physicians and environmental services and administrative staff, sought him out. “People were just lining up because it was out there that I was cutting hair. People loved the cut because they realized it’s not like a YouTube video haircut. It’s actually a professional cut because I used to be a professional barber.”

Nick, who received the Clinical Nurse Excellence Award from Brooklyn Methodist Hospital for his hard work and dedication in 2019, even went so far as to set up the locker room like a traditional barbershop, where people could come and talk about topics not related to work.

“I tried to make the setting what I’m used to,” he says. “I brought in my laptop and would play soft and inspirational music, like Bob Marley. It almost made you forget that you were working in the hospital. It was like you went to de-stress.”

Nick’s colleagues say that’s just what his barbershop accomplished.

“To me it felt like life went back to normal for a brief moment,” says Alina Ivanova, a registered nurse in the ED. “I could step into his barbershop and take a breather from the craziness of the pandemic and be around colleagues where we could think and talk about other things, and come away looking a little nicer.”

While this started out as a favor to co-workers, it ended up becoming a bonding experience where Nick learned about people’s lives outside of the hospital.

Nick Harrison at work during the crisis

“You know someone’s a nurse, a nurse tech, environmental services, or a doctor, but you don’t really know them outside of the hospital,” he says. “When the people are sitting in that chair, we just start talking. Where you traveled. Where you feel like traveling after this. What you wanted to do. Just anything outside of the work setting. When you can just talk about what you want to talk about, it brings a certain type of togetherness.”

The feeling was mutual, says Ernesto Perez-Mir, vice president and chief nursing officer of NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital.

“When I got my haircut I got to have a 30-minute conversation and learn more about him, about his upbringing, how he became a barber, how he worked for the Fire Department,” says Perez-Mir. “As CNO and VP, you don’t get to the personal stories that often. Having conversations with him, with the other people that were present, that’s what made it so beautiful and why something as simple as cutting hair had such a big impact on people.

“During COVID I spent more time at the hospital than at home. This is our working family, and the fact he didn’t charge a penny shows the admiration and support he has for his colleagues,” Perez-Mir adds. “When his shift ended and he would cut hair, there would be a line of people waiting for him.”

Nick says the more haircuts he gave, the more he enjoyed it because of how it made people feel afterward. He said it was like a weight had lifted off their shoulders because the work of caring for COVID patients was stressful, and it was almost as if they had something to look forward to coming to work.

“Cutting hair brought so much bonding and family to the back of that locker room. It was touching,” says Nick, who prides himself on never having missed a shift during the COVID-19 crisis. “I’ll miss that, because I told everybody that after the barbershops open, I’m going to be wrapping it up. I’m still cutting one or two heads every now and then and touching up what we did, but I’m going to miss it.”

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