By STEFAN MODRICH
They work long, grueling hours, looking death in the eye, out of sight and perhaps even out of mind during a pandemic that has gripped the globe for most of the last year.
Unpredictability is the norm, and 4½ hours is a good night’s sleep. Gym shoes are worn in the event that a sudden sprint down a hallway is necessary.
At Memorial Hermann Sugar Land Hospital, a group of dedicated registered nurses (RNs) have bonded and become a close-knit family as COVID-19 continues to affect Fort Bend County and Greater Houston.
Their names are Janelle Ante, Trevor Fisher, Autumn Norsworthy, Yolanda Russell, Tabitha Wilson and Angela Ybarra. And for their spirited efforts to help keep our communities healthier and safer, they are the Fort Bend Star’s 2020 Stars of the Year.
“We don’t really know what we’re getting day to day, minute to minute,” Ybarra said. “The ER is about being on your toes and thinking quick on your feet, being ready for the worst, because it’s probably coming.”
Ybarra said the most difficult thing about working in the emergency room is having to overcome the loss of a patient, recalling a particularly hard day when multiple patients died both of COVID-19 and other causes. She relied heavily on her co-workers to help her after being beset with grief and consoling the family of the lost patient.
“You have more patients, and even if you lose one, you have three others that still need you,” Ybarra said. “So in a sense you have to suck in that emotion so that you can give care to those other patients that need you. The family-oriented environment helps you lift your spirits for a minute so you can change your hat from this sorrow to focus on the others that you have to maintain health with or improve health with.”
Wilson said she had a similar experience and was moved by an ER doctor who took the time to share a patient’s final moments virtually with an out-of-state family.
“ER doctors are busy, and the fact that he sat there and took that time, it showed a lot of him,” Wilson said.
Ante, a Katy resident, has spent five of her last seven years as an RN with Memorial Hermann, progressing from a staff nurse to a charge nurse to becoming one of the clinical coordinators in her 30-bed unit.
She said the nurses have looked out for each other, after one of her colleagues was diagnosed with COVID-19. She said that the nurse has continued to receive support from her peers throughout her recovery.
“The overwhelming support from one nurse to another and the community within our hospital, I think it speaks volumes,” Ante said. “We have to support one another, and we receive a lot of support not only in our own departments, but from ICUs, ERs, even from the non-clinical staff.”
Several nurses said they were also grateful for the support from the Fort Bend County community at large, including drive-through parades with cheers and thanks expressed from a distance and lunch drop-offs from local restaurants.
“It’s hard to face this pandemic working at the bedside,” Ante said. “It makes it more comforting to know that you have your community with you, hand-in-hand.”
Russell, a county resident who said she lives near the hospital, is a clinical coordinator on a medical-surgical unit and works night shifts.
“It’s been very difficult emotionally, socially, physically, it’s draining,” Russell said. “I’ve spoken to my peers and a lot of my peers have mentioned that it’s been very difficult sleeping at night, but at the same time we have to encourage each other and build each other up so that we can be there the next day. It’s all about community and helping each other get through these difficult times, and we’re doing it, day by day.”
Their families also have to deal with the daily reality of their loved ones working in close proximity to infected coronavirus patients.
“As we come home we’re wondering, ‘Are we going to bring this home to our family?’ ” Russell said.
When Russell’s mother died during a period of heightened visitation restrictions, she was unable to visit her in person.
“We had to Zoom just to see her,” Russell said. “It was really difficult. But my whole hospital sent me letters and gave me so much emotional support that helped me get back to work. I know that I’m in the right place, and I’m grateful and lucky to be there.”
She said visitation rules are constantly changing, and one of her goals is to ensure patients’ families are kept in the loop and can be in contact with their loved one.
“We’ve established something where we can actually call a family and we have just one person we’re able to communicate with them and give them a little information, an update on how their family is doing since they’re unable to visit (in person),” Russell said.
Wilson has 14 years under her belt, making her one of the most experienced nurses on staff. She works on a team with Ybarra and Fisher.
“Everybody is doing their part and working on getting vaccinations going right now,” Wilson said. “It’s definitely been a life-altering experience, but I would definitely not do it with anybody else but the team I have right here.”
In her 12 years as a nurse, Ybarra never thought she would put into practice the knowledge she learned in school and in clinical rotations about how to handle a pandemic. She said she was a patient at Memorial Hermann when she first experienced the sense of camaraderie of the team that served her, and when she got the chance, she wanted to be able to contribute as a colleague.
“We do have to lean on each other,” Ybarra said. “We recognize when we are at our threshold of when we need that pickup, that boost from each other. That is the heart of our Memorial Hermann Hospital.”
Fisher is a recent arrival to the Sugar Land campus, starting in 2018, but he began his nursing career 19 years ago. He said one of the keys to becoming a successful nurse is learning to adjust quickly to difficult situations.
“This has been a very challenging time,” Fisher said. “We learn early on to be very adaptable to different circumstances and environments. We have to meet the end goal which is the best patient care we can provide. I can’t imagine myself somewhere else at this point. The leadership has been fantastic with any type of challenge we encounter in life, no matter if it is healthcare or not. The tools make the difference, and we have truly been blessed with the tools that we need.”
Wearing heavy, hot personal protective equipment can take its toll, and sometimes needs to be changed several times a day, multiple nurses said.
But the invisible barriers are the ones that can be most taxing on healthcare workers, along with what Fisher called the “automatic fear” of a COVID diagnosis as a death sentence.
“We find ourselves having to stay a distance from folks who we would normally want to hug or put our arm around,” Fisher said. “You want to hug your co-worker or your friend and say, ‘I’m so sorry.’ It’s very difficult for us to share our thoughts and emotions with those that are going through a tougher time than we are at that moment. Yes, it’s tough on healthcare staff and it’s tough on the folks that are on the front line, but it’s also tough on those family members that have lost that loved one and just that fear of losing that loved one.”
For many on the last line of defense against COVID-19, simply unplugging from work is much more challenging than it ever has been.
“Right now, because of being in a pandemic, we’re never going to be able to leave work at work,” Norsworthy said. “It always follows us everywhere we go. It constantly is bringing us to that work mindset because it’s something we can never escape from. It’s always on our minds.”