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10 Who Made A Difference - 2020-12-02

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Caring for patients in a pandemic

FROST 19

STORY BY SCOTT WYLAND | PHOTO BY LUIS SÁNCHEZ SATURNO

Blending tears and laughter. That’s how nurse Dana Morgan describes what her medical unit, dubbed Frost 19, experiences in a given day of treating COVID-19 patients as the outbreak escalates throughout state, including in Santa Fe County. The unit’s name mixes the term COVID-19 and the Frost Pavilion, the wing where the team works at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center. In recent weeks, the demands on Frost 19 have grown with skyrocketing caseloads. On the day team members were interviewed, health officials reported more than 3,600 cases for the state, an alarming jump from the norm of around 150 daily cases in September. The unit takes COVID-19 patients from around New Mexico and even outside the state, so the unprecedented surge has meant the team has seen many more people coming through the door and more not surviving. The higher death toll requires team members to buoy one another, whether it’s through lighthearted fun, consoling fellow colleagues or fostering a lively camaraderie. “There’s lots of tears on that unit, but there’s also, probably, equally as much laughter,” Morgan said. “It’s a very good balance.” The unit’s resilience — as it tackles a rising wave of COVID-19 cases and gives patients the best chance of survival — earned it a place in The New Mexican’s 10 Who Made a Difference for 2020. Eight nurses and four technicians make up a core team in the unit, although a variety of personnel provide support, such as radiologists, nutritionists, critical care doctors, a respirator therapist and even housekeepers. Nick Armijo, an intensive care nurse, said he brings a team together at the beginning of a shift for a group huddle to boost camaraderie and help clarify their purpose. “We focus on initially, ‘Why are we here?’ ” Armijo said. “We’re here to serve our people in our community. I might have some motivating words … so we do come together as a team.” Any boost helps, given the unit’s personnel work 12-hour shifts, four or five days a week, to meet the increasing workload. As of Nov. 19, COVID-19 patients were occupying 36 beds, triple the number before the pandemic surged. “It’s fair to say that this team is feeling it in the Frost … but the whole house is feeling the workload of caring for the community,” Christus St. Vincent CEO Lillian Montoya said. On average, about a third of the unit’s patients live in Santa Fe County and two-thirds come from out of the area, Armijo said. But with Santa Fe’s cases increasing to as many as 200-something a day, Armijo said he encounters patients he knows personally or who know his family. “That’s what makes it harder because that’s my neighbor,” Armijo said. A few patients revealed something about his late father he hadn’t known. “I’m finding out that my dad was a good jitterbug dancer!” Armijo said. Monica Leyba, the chief nursing officer, said there are days that are uplifting and days that are hard on team members. “They lose patients — patients that they have become attached to and that they are caring for,” she said. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, a dying patient can only talk with family and friends via Zoom, not in person. A nurse monitors each electronic chat. The patient’s loved ones often pour out their emotions, making it difficult to remain a detached professional, Armijo said. “That’s very emotional for all of our staff.” Morgan said the team members act as a surrogate family for dying patients, gathering around them in silence in their final moments. “Patients never die alone,” Morgan said. “It’s nothing compared to their real family, but we’re there for them.” For a while, most of the hospital’s COVID-19 patients were from the Navajo Nation when it was engulfed in a severe outbreak, Armijo said. A 24-year-old Navajo man died, and his father traveled from Gallup to thank the hospital staff for the care it provided. “He’s the same age as my son, so I became attached to him,” Armijo said. Morgan said that when she leaves work after a patient dies, she’ll crank up music on her drive home — either upbeat songs that make her want to dance or sad ones that help her cry out the pain. She said she has to reassure her son that even though she works in a COVID-19 unit, the hospital keeps her safe. “It’s a daily conversation to tell him that it’s fine.” Wayne Littlejohn, the critical care director, said his daughter, who wants to be a nurse, will ask him what he did that day and how things went. When she inquired on a particularly stressful day, Littlejohn had to remind himself of his purpose: to help people. “It’s what we do,” Littlejohn said. “It’s not for money, it’s not for recognition.” Unit members engage in little distractions to ease the stress, such as tossing around a ball made of rubber bands or enjoying treats and thank-you cards from the community. Working in the unit isn’t all grim. Many patients recover and go home, including some who seemed at death’s door. “What makes this job worthwhile is seeing someone on a ventilator — now they’re walking down the hallway,” Armijo said. “Oftentimes, I think of the miracles that happen here.”

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