Working in health care is never an easy job. There’s always death, and loss and new life.
But this year included those things and more. Nurses, doctors, technicians and hospital staff took on the roles of not just healers and caretakers, but of teachers, learners, communicators and lifelines.
El Paso’s frontline health care workers are our 2020 El Pasoans of the Year.
The coronavirus pandemic brought normal life to a screeching halt in March. Businesses shut down, unemployment rates skyrocketed and the world was learning the very first lessons about something that would change everything moving forward.
Within the walls of El Paso’s hospitals, a new scene was playing out. And in the months that followed, the community had to watch as case counts skyrocketed, the second wave larger than the first.
Even before health care workers step foot in their departments, their days already look different than they did a year ago.
Dr. Carlo Hatem, a pulmonologist and critical care specialist at The Hospitals of Providence, said there were new things hospitals had to learn this year in terms of treating COVID-19 patients who are on life support.
“We had to find answers on our own or with the help of researchers around the world,” Hatem said. “We had to keep up with the type of research in regard to that. This year something we’ve used more than in previous years is prone ventilation, where you ask people to lie on their belly instead of back.”
For the nurses, technicians, doctors and staff at the hospitals, they got a frontline glimpse into a patient and family’s life, impacted by COVID-19 and the treatment of the virus.
Analina Benavides, a respiratory therapist and supervisor at The Hospitals of Providence Transmountain Campus respiratory department, said this year her department learned how to manage a higher number of patients on ventilators.
She’s also helped coordinate the distribution of ventilators among The Hospitals of Providence, El Paso’s largest health network, which includes four hospitals and a children’s hospital.
“It’s a constant juggle of making sure we help each other out,” Benavides said.
For Sarah Sierra, an ICU nurse at Las Palmas Medical Center, this type of work is all she’s experienced in her professional career. She graduated from nursing school in December and started at Las Palmas in March.
“It’s hard but it also makes me feel proud of what I do,” Sierra said. “I can deliver a certain aspect of nursing that maybe hadn’t been happening before the pandemic. I have to make up for that critical missing piece of the puzzle, the family member being there.”
In the past year, Sierra had to experience the death of her first patient, and it was because of COVID-19. Patients and families form bonds with nurses, and everyone grieves together when a patient passes on.
“I came to the realization that it’s going to be my norm, going forward. But a positive thing that came out of it for me is being able to speak to families and connect to them in a way I don’t know I would’ve done before all this,” Sierra said.
Hospitals were once loud, bustling places, with waiting rooms full of families and hurried flower purchases at the gift shops.
Families used to be able to get a quick meal at the cafeteria, finding just a little bit of nourishment and comfort from a plate of fries or a hot paper cup of coffee.
But now, it’s quiet. Nearly all of the health care workers who spoke to El Paso Inc. talked about the quietness and subdued atmosphere in the hospitals.
“Now when we see family generally it’s because it’s the end of life,” Benavides said. “They’re coming in to see that. I think a lot of us got into health care because we genuinely like the patient contact, and we like to help people. We’re people-people.”
In a time of social distancing, our families, friends and coworkers remain vital supports, including for health care workers and patients.
Dr. Ogechika Alozie, chief medical officer at Del Sol Medical Center, said his children help keep him going and motivated every day, and have helped him keep calm and focused through the most stressful days.
“It’s a source of strength that I see day to day, that no matter how exhausted I am, I’m being a role model and anchor for them. When the world is going crazy, they see me and I try not to show that fear,” Alozie said.
Hatem, the pulmonologist at Providence, said what keeps him hopeful are all the team members that work at hospitals and clinics.
“There are a lot of super dedicated people at the hospital. These are people who are putting themselves in harm’s way and working long, challenging hours in challenging conditions. That gives me a lot of hope, about the majority of humanity.”
He added that he’s also hopeful about the vaccines and other treatments for COVID-19.
“If enough people take the vaccine, then we can vie to return to some normalcy,” Hatem said.
Oscar Lira Loera, a nurse in the ICU at University Medical Center, is working during the Christmas holiday. He also worked during Thanksgiving and during the Aug. 3 shooting in 2019.
He said he wants to reassure families that nurses will be there with their loved ones during the holidays.
“The nurses, we’re going to be the closest person they’ll be with, so we have a bigger responsibility,” Loera said. “But at the same time it’s a privilege. We’re going to make a difference and be with them. We’re here for you and hopefully make them feel better.”
The pandemic and workload have also taken a mental health toll on medical workers and staff.
Sierra said she’s dealing with a different kind of anxiety that she didn’t have before, and said she changes clothes and showers before seeing her children.
But she’s also made a new routine of calling her mom and dad every day after work.
“They’re kind of my sounding board. I can kind of just vent with them and let it out before I get home, and that has helped me a lot,” Sierra said.
She added that her patients and families have also kept her going through a difficult year.
“I don’t think I’m being brave. I don’t think I’m doing anything out of the ordinary. But hearing those things help me feel like I’m doing something right,” Sierra said. “I’m doing these things for people, and I went into nursing to help people and help them feel better again, or to help them in their last moments. I’m doing my job.”
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Sara Sanchez at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 105.