The year 2020 has already assured historians of a fleet of super tankers full of medical horror they will probably never exhaust. Sometime in late 2019 a microscopic virus somehow escaped---from exactly where remains a source of controversy---and launched itself into nearly every country in the world. Now, not even halfway into the year, the coronavirus is closing in on 300,000 deaths worldwide including nearly 80,000-plus in the U.S. It’s a global health crisis not seen in a century.
The world has become accustomed to images of patient beds lining hospital hallways because rooms are filled to capacity. Meanwhile, doctors and nurses walk past on their way to treating another COVID-19 victim. Refrigerated trailers outside hospitals have become makeshift morgues and, if the shock of this has not settled in, some hospital workers have been seen wearing garbage bags for gowns and reusing facemasks because personal protective equipment has become scarce or even run out.
While New York has become America’s COVID-19 epicenter, no place is immune. “We’ve lost a lot of people, too,” said Nicole Retana, a registered nurse who is part of the team treating victims at North Suburban Medical Center in Thornton. As a float pool nurse, Retana works in different units in the hospital. Her duties also include teaching nursing students, many of whom are getting an up close and personal view of an environment they may not even imagined just a few short months ago.
But that also goes for doctors and nurses at North Suburban Medical Center who are waging the same battle as their counterparts in New York, Chicago and across international time zones. Adams County, where Retana works, is moving toward 2,200 cases of coronavirus, making it the fourth hardest hit county in Colorado. While the numbers are ever-changing, Colorado has confirmed nearly 20,000 cases of the virus and nearly a thousand deaths.
Retana, who has been in nursing for a decade, says every day she sees the sacrifice her colleagues make as they do everything they can to save a life or comfort a victim of this virus. “It not surprising to me,” she said. She had special praise for colleagues Francisco Pereda and Sarah Salomon, nurses who have been remarkable “since day one,” of the virus arrival.
Salomon deflects the praise. “It’s my job to take care of them and help them get better.” But when she’s not working her twelve-hour shifts, Salomon’s other job is just as important. The nine-year health care veteran has two young children at home and the very thought of accidentally taking the virus home and exposing her kids is omnipresent. “I have to be super diligent. I can’t miss a step and have to make sure that I’m wearing everything appropriately”
In addition to checking each of the medical boxes in carrying out their duties as nurses, Retana says Pereda and Salomon have also stepped up as surrogate family for victims whose own families are not able to visit because of the highly contagious nature of the virus.
But it is not just her nursing colleagues who have stepped up, said Retana. She has high praise for the hospital’s environmental staff along with the respiratory and kitchen staff. “People have come together at work more than usual. It’s inspiring and makes me very emotional.” To beat the virus, it has to be a team effort.
“I’m proud to stand next to the nurse at work,” said Salomon. “We’re all going through this big struggle; we’re like a family and that makes it easier.”
Emotions also bubble up when a patient has died. It’s a moment that is almost certain to happen no matter the shift. “We’ve lost a lot of people,” said Retana, her voice trailing off. “We’re in Adams County,” she said. “It’s a hot pocket and most (victims) have been Latino. It’s a reflection of our demographics.”
Because coronavirus is so contagious, Retana and her co-workers are especially vigilant at shift’s end, often twelve hours after they’ve arrived at work. “We all have our process as far as decontamination,” she said. Retana’s worst fear is infecting the people she loves, including her 85-year-old father. “I also have a husband and nephew that I live with.”
Despite the foreboding nature of COVID-19, the most dramatic pandemic in a century, Retana says it has shined a light on the job that nurses and hospital staff do seven days a week. Some nurses who might otherwise be assigned to completely different roles, often find themselves cross-training and sometimes in the middle of a ward completely unfamiliar to them. “They leave their comfort zone and enter a more dangerous situation,” she said. It’s the job.
But nurses, says Retana, have made course corrections for years, often leaving their primary responsibility to ease the workload when it’s called for. “It takes years to develop the critical skills that these nurses have,” she said. But a good one, she said, can make it shift seamlessly if it’s called for.
It happens regularly at Retana’s hospital and there is no indication that things will change anytime soon. Colorado’s upward COVID-19 curve is not showing any indication of flattening. “That’s the expectation,” she said. “I don’t see where it ends at this point.”
Because the Governor has ordered a soft reopening of the state, Retana fears that the numbers of victims may spike. Without offering an opinion on the wisdom of his decision, Retana simply says, “With restrictions being lifted, take care of yourself and make sure your grandmother has a mask and stays at home.”
Retana and Salomon know they’re not alone in this fight. “I pray every day,” said Salomon. “I also have family that sends messages everyday. I appreciate it and it seems like it’s working.”