Looking COVID-19 in the eye

Intensive care unit (ICU) nurse Joy Gerales poses in a protective medical suit in May 2020.

A man alone on his deathbed looked over at his wife and son.

He wanted to be able to hold them close, but he was forced to say his final goodbye through a glass door.

Joy Gerales, 34, witnessed this. Gerales is an intensive care unit (ICU) nurse at a Los Angeles hospital who declined to give the location for safety concerns.

“That was the most depressing thing that I’ve ever seen because this is not the norm,” Gerales said in a phone interview. “I’ve been an ICU nurse for 11 years and I’ve seen a lot of deaths, but this was totally a different feel.”

Gerales said hospitals normally accommodate families by letting them stay in the room as they’re close to dying. But because of COVID-19, hospitals are forced to take precaution and limit how many medical personnel enter the room once the patient dies to limit exposure.

“It was so different unlike any other cardiac arrest because when you see the patient is in cardiac arrest, you can’t even drop a needle in the room because everyone is there like doctors and nurses,” Gerales said. “Now we cannot even jump in the room because it has to be contained and controlled.”

Despite these precautions and limiting how many nurses go into a COVID-19 patient’s room to preserve their protection gear and to limit exposure, Gerales managed to contract COVID-19 and was required to self-isolate in a separate room and bathroom from her family for a month.

At first her fever wouldn’t go above 100.4, but within a matter of days Gerales started to experience shortness of breath.

“If I start panicking, my breathing problem will get worse. I’ll probably end up calling 911. I’ll end up tubed in the ER. I will never see my family,” Gerales said. “That’s what I’m thinking and debating alone at 3 a.m. in my bed.”

Gerales said what kept her going and remaining calm was the thought of her husband and 4-year-old son waiting on the other side of the door for her to get better.

“I know my son missed me so much because everytime he passed by my room he would say, ‘Mama I love you and miss you’ outside the door,” Gerales said.

After more than two weeks in isolation from her family, Gerales said the moment she was finally able to hug her son felt like she was granted a second chance at life.

At the end of every shift for healthcare workers, their anxiety doesn’t end. Instead, they fear that they’re taking home COVID-19 to their family.

Ryan, 38, is a full-time nurse at Kaiser Permanente and who declined to give his last name for safety concerns. He said he takes precautions by taking his temperature before and after every shift to protect his family.

If he were to give COVID-19 to his wife and daughters, he said it would be the biggest regret of his life.

“We [healthcare workers] all took an oath that we’re going to take care of patients, but our families did not take an oath,” Ryan said in a phone interview. “That’s our main fear: to bring the virus home.”

COVID-19 is in the back of his mind even while celebrating his daughter and wife’s birthday. He explains how he has to distance himself from his elderly parents, who are at a higher risk, which forced them to celebrate behind Ryan’s glass windows.

With healthcare workers working full time, many cherish the little moments they have with family. But even at home, the fear of COVID-19 doesnt leave their mind.

For 24-year-old Lizbeth Rodriguez, being an ER Nurse during the pandemic helped her realize how precious life is and to appreciate each day.

She also explains how even her intimate moments with her husband are clouded with anxiety from COVID-19.

“What if this kiss is my kiss of death and what if I give it to him through this kiss,” Rodriguez said in a phone interview.

With the added strain of healthcare workers being at the forefront of the pandemic and having difficulty enjoying their private lives, people have deemed healthcare workers as “healthcare heroes.”

For 34-year-old Ziska Arnold, a surgical ICU Nurse at Cedar Sinai, she understands why people call healthcare workers heroes but explains it’s part of the job.

“It’s nice they’re calling us heroes now, but we’ve been heroes all along,” Arnold said. “Not many folks can do what we do and deal with what we do on a daily basis. I wish they could give us all this respect pre and post pandemic.”

Despite the sudden praise for healthcare workers, Rodriguez says people who break social distancing rules are going against the efforts of healthcare workers.

“People flocking toward the beach right now and not having any sentiments towards social distancing, feels like a slap in the face,” Rodriguez said. “We are working toward so much to get this to the point where we can go back to our normal life.”

Although elderly people are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, Gerales said healthcare workers are seeing elderly patients go on ventilators as well as young patients without any medical history.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re over 65, we get patients in their 20s and 30s,” Gerales said. “This pandemic made me see that everyone is able to get sick and vulnerable.”

Gerales sympathizes and explains that efforts to end the COVID-19 pandemic must come from healthcare workers and the general public.

”If only people understood how emotionally draining it is to see patients dying alone in the ICU bed, and their families to be so helpless that they can’t even be there with their loved one as they die,” Gerales said. ”I know it’s hard right now, but everyone has to do their part and have to stay home for this pandemic to end.”