Critical Care Nurses Become COVID-19 Sisters
Jun 26, 2020 Nicole Levine
What do you say to someone who is in the intensive care unit with COVID-19, facing the worst symptoms of an illness that has changed every aspect of life?
If you're critical care nurses Melanie Lim or Joy Gerales, you tell them you've been there.
"I went there, and I'm here with you right now, and I know you can come back from it, too," Melanie says to patients now. "Patients need to hear that."
"I probably didn't have a wink of sleep before my first day back after being sick with COVID-19. My heart raced to the roof when I was walking in the door."
The two nurses have been close for many years. Melanie and Joy always eat their lunches together when they're on the same shift, often bringing enough to feed the other, an endless potluck they've shared for eight years.
Joy began experiencing symptoms first.
She can chronicle each day of her illness in detail from memory, from the first day of isolating herself in an upstairs bedroom, away from her husband, David, and their sons Joshua, 16, and Skyler, 4, to the next four days of uneventful, low fevers.
On day six, soreness wracked her body and her temperature spiked to over 104. Her husband left buckets of ice chips outside her door.
She also FaceTimed her 4-year-old, who was playing downstairs and asking when he would be able to see her again.
"I'd seen young patients in those weeks before I got sick, being intubated and put on the breathing machine," she says. "I was so scared I couldn't sleep. I was ready to call Melanie or my sister to ask them if they would help take care of my kids if anything happened to me. I was just praying that the worst wouldn't happen."
When the shortness of breath became intense, Joy nursed herself as she would one of her patients.
She put herself on her belly in the prone position to help increase oxygen flow through her body, used her inhaler and tried to relax. She spoke to an intensivist daily, texted her nurse friends and kept in close touch with Melanie.
Soon after, Melanie started having symptoms.
"I was eating dinner and I told my husband I couldn't smell my food," Melanie says. "Is it coming now? Am I getting sick now?"
At Melanie's home, she and her husband, Samuel, were both sick, with their 12-year-old son isolating from them in his room.
"My husband got worse and worse, and I had to drive him to the ER," Melanie says. "That was the scariest part—not knowing if he would be coming home with me. I made him promise he would come back home and that I would see him again."
Luckily, he was not sick enough to require hospital admission, and they went home together.
She kept in close contact with Joy, texting and FaceTiming so they could compare notes on their symptoms and offer each other support.
After 22 days isolated in her bedroom, Joy disinfected every surface, pulled on fresh clothes and went downstairs to see her family. Her son Skyler was thrilled to see his mother.
"He ran to me and he hugged me, and I was just crying and crying," says Joy.
Her next reunion would be with her colleagues, when she was cleared to return to work.
"I probably didn't have a wink of sleep before my first day back after being sick with COVID-19," she says. "My heart raced to the roof when I was walking in the door. I was in so early and everyone was so happy when they saw me.
"I was scared, but I had to face it again because I really love what I do. This is my profession. I felt responsible to be back with my team."
Melanie would return to work a week after Joy, who was waiting for Melanie when she arrived to help her calm her fears.
The pair worked together often that first day and shared their usual lunch together. Melanie says her close friendship and working relationship with Joy helped her get through that day.
"She waited for me and reassured me," says Melanie. "She's my COVID-19 sister."