Among the steady stream of stretchers nurse practitioner Phillipe Nover saw pass through his New York City area hospital last weekend, the former UFC fighter was shocked to see a familiar face. It was another nurse around his age, a man Nover knew was as fit and healthy as himself, having spent many shifts working side by side with him.

“I can’t breathe, man,” he told Nover, as other gurneys buzzed past them and paper-gowned medical personnel hustled back and forth through a chaotic emergency room. Nover put on a brave face and wished his colleague well, trying to bury the thoughts that the virus currently sweeping through New York City could take him out as well.

At the hospital, Nover’s has witnessed a lot of change since it was announced in mid-March that Covid-19 had come to the United States. For two weeks, Nover and his co-workers have been preparing for what they’re calling “the apex”, which is when the number of infections and deaths will reach their height.

“They’re saying in one to two weeks, we could have a healthcare system crash,” says the 36-year-old Nover. “The tipping point is when we’ll have to start deciding who gets the remaining ventilators. We’re preparing for another Italy or Spain.”

Two weeks ago, the staff slowly shut down non-essential services to save masks and gowns for the ER. Nover, who regularly works in cardiology, volunteered for the ER or ICU – he’d worked in an ER from 2005 to 2008. The hospital initially designated half its ER an isolation area for Covid-19 patients, but the virus quickly disregarded those arrangements. The afflicted are everywhere now, spilling out into hallways lined with gurneys like neatly parallel-parked cars. Even critical care patients have been wheeled into the hallways, connected to bulky transport monitors. The ICU is now dedicated exclusively to Covid-19.

“In the past, we’ve had an influx of patients, but it always settles down for a bit where we can catch our breaths,” said Nover. “It’s not settling down here.”

Exposure is a major topic of conversation among the medical staff. Covid-19 is highly contagious and like other hospitals around the country, personal protective equipment, like facemasks and gowns, is at a minimum and will likely run out at some point. Nover says the equipment is rationed and every nurse is told to write their names on everything in marker.

“I have all my protective equipment,” said Nover. “I don’t mess around with protective gear. It’s like I’m in a sauna suit, cutting weight for a big fight.”


Phillipe Nover at work as a nurse. Photograph: Phillipe Nover

Only two years ago, Nover was in the cage inflicting damage on his opponents, not tending to it. In 2008, Nover was a finalist during Season 8 of The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC’s hit reality show that launched many a fighter’s career. He didn’t win the six-figure contract, but his performances secured him a spot in the UFC’s featherweight division. During his 14-year mixed martial arts career, Nover had 23 professional fights – 10 of them in the UFC.

During his fighting career, Nover left nursing for a time, but later returned, balancing both careers the same way he had when he started fighting in 2003.

“I was a pretty physical kid and enrolled in every sport I could. Soccer. Baseball. Lots of team sports,” says Nover. “Both of my parents wanted me to try martial arts and over time I began to like the one-on-one aspect of it over team sports.”

At the age of nine, Nover was introduced to traditional martial arts like jeet kune do and kung fu. But when a friend told him about Brazilian jiu-jitsu in their teens, Nover was hooked after his first session. In just a couple of years, he earned his black belt under Alexandre “Soca” Freitas and he was recently awarded a rare third-degree stripe from the legendary Renzo Gracie.

Nover’s father was a nurse for 30 years, a Patch Adams-type character who’d gladly play the fool to get a laugh out of his patients. As a kid, Nover and his brother, also now a nurse, would dress up in scrubs from head to toe and practice playing doctor with one another.

“Putting on scrubs today like we did is not allowed, but when I wore it, I felt like a superhero,” he says.

After Nover graduated high school in 2002, his father said he would make a great nurse. “Me being only 18, I told my dad that nursing was kind of a woman’s thing, but he had a great reply,” says Nover. “‘There are a lot of women in the field,’ my father said, ‘and you get to work with a lot of them.’”

Nover was surprised how much he liked nursing school. “I learned about the human body, which I was passionate about,” he says. “I was a martial artist. I wanted to not only learn about sick people, but healthy people and how to be in optimum health.”

As a former professional athlete, Nover knows his health is better than most. That’s why he volunteered to join the ER and ICU, where he believes he will contract the virus, if he hasn’t already.

“I’m very healthy. I eat right. I exercise. So why not go to the front line? There’s a lot of nurses I work with who are older with family and kids. Some of them have overcome cancer or are managing diseases. A lot of the younger staff like me feel the same way. This is our calling. I never thought it would come to this, but this is what we signed up for.”

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