Nurses are the vital omnipresent heroes of healing. If doctors are the spine, nurses are the central nervous system that affects and benefits all functions.
Our nurses embody the positive intentions of the American dream — diverse in cultures, steadfast in achievements; nurses are valiant caregivers to those in need.
Their devotion is the essence of real super-heroes, worthy of reverence and appreciation.
For the last few months, I’ve communicated with a heroine, Sonia LaPlace-Cannistraci, RN, CCRN — she shared experiences from her beginnings in the ICU (Intensive Care Unit), to the day she became a COVID-19 nurse. In her thirty-three year career at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, she has never experienced anything quite like her weeks as a COVID nurse.
In Sonia’s words, “There are so many working hard to make a difference…my heart breaks for the page operators who call one cardiac arrest after another — each time, the urgency echoes in their voices. During the peak, which lasted about fourteen days, there were between twenty to twenty-five cardiac calls during my twelve-hour shift. There’s the security guard who told me that she’s never seen so many dead bodies and the cleaning staff that are scared to remove all the waste we create while caring for COVID patients. And the poor patients, their eyes are taped shut to prevent corneal abrasions, and they are unable to speak. The hardest part is hearing their families cry when they see their loved ones on Facetime.”
For me, Sonia’s account prompted consideration of a vital interactive element essential to healthcare, communication. COVID protocols have removed human connection — nurses wear layers of PPE while caring for patients who cannot communicate through words or expressions. Human touch removed; nurses cannot give their usual standard of care by comforting their patients through communication and contact.
In April, most of us watched from afar as New Yorkers fought to save each other. During the peak, many nurses and doctors equated the COVID-19 environment within hospitals to a “war-zone.”
The interactive elements of war, as defined by COVID-19, were evidenced in the immediate calls to new units, changing job roles, and working with new teams as medical needs evolved.
“Early in the crisis, as our OR (Operating Room) cases canceled, my boss began sending us to the ER (Emergency Room). Due to non-stop admission of COVID patients, their team was desperate for help.”
With every patient, COVID care adds an unrelenting element of personal danger for nurses to overcome. As detailed in Sonia’s account, they persist, harnessing courage as they work to steady themselves and secure their patient’s health.
“The day it was my turn to join the ER team, I swear my knees buckled, I thought I might throw up. — I was so scared. As the OR attendant dressed me from head to toe, I swallowed the lump in my throat and tried to prepare myself. Then my boss walked me to our RAC (Rapid Access Unit). I’m not going to lie. It took me two hours to calm my nerves. I’d never worked with anyone on the RAC team before and was in unfamiliar surroundings. The urgency forced my brain to defibrillate ICU nursing skills not used in years. By the end of my twelve-hour shift, I’d learned so much and recalled even more. I left that unit feeling like I had worked with super-heroes.”
Reading her words, I thought about what makes a super-hero. America loves its heroes — especially those who charge ahead towards danger to rescue those in need.
When Americans extol heroes, most attribute this honor to war-time soldiers. Undeniably, service members are a unique form of heroes; they discipline for diverse circumstances and sustain our nation’s security. Their prowess in the face of the unknown exemplifies valor.
We admire local super-heroes, such as the firefighters who rushed into the World Trade Center to save fellow New Yorkers. Although trained to recuse civilians, on 9/11/01, they answered war’s unmistakable call — their courage in the face of the unimaginable ignited national unity.
Today, nurses in hospitals across America are providing healthcare at war’s pace — they are both war-heroes and super-heroes.
As hometown nurses face the loss of life at an accelerated rate and witness both patients and colleagues succumb to COVID, they endure mental, emotional, and social burdens common to war-zones.
Historically, America at war includes social protests and political coercion, each vying for public support to influence policy changes. In that regard, COVID-19 has been no different — Americans disagree on the validity of the virus and how to defeat it. Thrust in the middle of this tug-o-war, our nation’s nurses now share this disparaging burden with soldiers who, in troubling times, were also doing their job.
However, on the front-lines, it’s less about party lines and all about lifelines.
For most of us, the front-line of war is unfathomable. Without first-hand experience, it’s hard to grasp the impact on the human spirit. Here, unity takes root, grows throughout, and bonds people to another in infinite ways.
Those who have lived it understand what it takes to triumph over the enemy — it takes universal unity.
Following New York’s pandemic peak, Sonia reflected on her team’s unbreakable bonds. “Our COVID crisis team consisted of nurses from ambulatory, recovery, and the OR with the anesthesia team working as our intensivists. Though each unit had its independent responsibilities, crisis mode redefined our team. In our newly converted OR-ICU, we quickly came together to function as one team — we worked as one, cried as one, rallied as one, and struggled as one. This tremendous, unforeseen crisis allowed us to recognize the distinction of our unity. The virus would never invade our squad or defy our efforts. It was an honor to work beside every person on my team.”
More than ever, I gravitate towards stories like Sonia’s; they are honorable representations of the American Way.
Because COVID continues to change the rules of engagement, nurses must also modify life beyond the hospitals. Most worrisome is the imminent threat of viral spread to loved ones; thus, many move away from home.
To protect her family, Sonia moved into an apartment. “When operating rooms became ICU units with two COVID patients per room, it was time for me to move — I was too scared to expose my family. I lived away from my family for one month; we spoke every night after work. There were sad days, angry days, and then finally good days. I shared my experiences when asked; mostly, my family needed to know that I was okay. It was hard not to bring the day home with me. As much as I missed my family, the solitude supported my decompression from each twelve-hour shift.”
As New York flattened their curve, demands for nurses decreased, and Sonia’s OR-ICU unit closed. After her third COVID test, she reunited with her family. It was a celebration, complete with her favorite dinner, roses, and lots of hugs from her family and beloved dog.
As the joy of homecoming has settled in, so have the remains of the trauma witnessed. It’s been a couple of months since the COVID surge in New York. Still, there are flashbacks to heart-pounding life and death moments where the COVID team, armed with crash carts, expertise, and determination fought to stabilize and save their patients.
As more states report tremendous surges in Coronavirus cases and convert medical spaces into COVID units, more people are beginning to understand the unrelenting grip of this viral enemy. For nurses like Sonia, they endure a new wave of COVID trauma; they feel the pain of familiarity as they observe more loss of life. They know what fellow healthcare workers are experiencing.
“The last two weeks of COVID reporting has triggered my realization that this pandemic haunts me in ways I could not have imagined, “ Sonia concluded.
Each time I’ve communicated with Sonia, the positive reflections outshine the challenges. No martyr’s tears, resentment, or regret, but instead super-hero strength, compassion, and endurance. Her power is reflective of nurses all across our nation — they are everyday super-heroes who embody the very best of America. They are selfless contributors toward social wellness.
Sonia says it best, “ When healing others is your life’s calling, it’s not for the recognition; we do it because it’s our passion.” Sonia’s mantra, “health is your true wealth,” reflects her conviction and commitment to healthcare.
Contrary to mischaracterizations of seasonal costumes and sitcoms, nurses are wise and empowered. They are the best in our society, especially now, while we are at our worst. Nurses are leading the course, guiding us towards honorable representations of the American way — they are worthy of our reverence and appreciation.