#YearofCOVID: Resilience on the Front Lines
A Nurse, a Respiratory Therapist and a Doctor Reflect on How They Sustained Their Energy and Optimism Through a Punishing Year
One year has passed since stay-at-home orders went into effect across the U.S. and the COVID-19 pandemic changed our lives in profound ways. The novel coronavirus has infected more than 100 million worldwide and killed more than 2.5 million, including more than 500,000 in the U.S alone. It has separated many from their loved ones and cost others their jobs, their homes and their life savings.
But in a dark year, we’ve also witnessed courageous patients and heroic healthcare workers battling the disease, as swift scientific breakthroughs have brought us vaccines and hope.
During March, the Cedars-Sinai Newsroom team is marking this one-year pandemic milestone with a series reflecting on the past 12 months as experienced by our patients, healthcare workers, researchers and community. Follow and join the conversation on social media @CedarsSinai.
Leaning Into a Crisis
Vibeke Hirsch, RN, a nurse at Cedars-Sinai Marina del Rey Hospital, vividly remembers the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when she had more questions than answers and returned home depleted after 12-hour shifts in her COVID-19 unit—longing only to take her dog, Dozer, for a quick walk and then go to sleep.
"When the virus first got here, nobody really knew what to do and how to protect ourselves," Hirsch recalled. "Do we wear an N95 mask? How much gear should we wear? What's going to protect us on the front lines?"
As the pandemic exploded in early 2020, much of the world shut down to guard against a silent and seemingly arbitrary killer. Hospitals leaned into the unknown, launching into crisis mode virtually overnight. Nurses and other healthcare workers returned to their patients' bedsides day after grueling day, exposing themselves to invisible danger as the epidemic quickly expanded into a pandemic beyond anyone's imagination.
While these frontline staff won praise for heroism, their long days and nights confronting the novel coronavirus took a huge physical and psychic toll. They needed to reach deep into their emotional and spiritual reserves to make it through an exhausting year.
"We were treating these very sick individuals and watching people die, screaming at the top of our lungs for people to be safe, wear a mask and socially distance," Hirsch said. "When we left the hospital, we too were as isolated and fatigued as everyone else. We also needed reprieve."
Hirsch can sympathize with others who felt isolated because she too didn't have her go-to stress outlets: playing beach volleyball, working out at the gym or gathering with friends at different restaurants for their weekly Wednesday Women's Wine Club.
"All of those things were stripped away, all of those things that I would use to vent or alleviate stress," Hirsch said.
Even though Hirsch's trusted decompressors were unavailable, she found alternatives to give her strength to manage the emotional roller coaster of work. She found solace in the evening walks around her Marina del Rey neighborhood with Dozer as the calming sounds of ocean waves played in the distance, and through Zoom calls with her 81-year-old mother nearly 3,000 miles away in New York City.
"I've called her just about every day that I'm not working," Hirsch said. "That was a promise that I made to her when this terrible virus hit the country. Now that we're both vaccinated, she's planning a trip to come visit me in a few weeks."
The biggest saving grace may have been her colleagues—nurses like her facing the medical fight of their lives.
"The camaraderie at work helped me get through," Hirsch said. "The fact that we are all going through this awful thing together, there's definitely a stronger sense of camaraderie on my unit."
Family Is the Best Medicine
Respiratory therapy is not only Justin Chazhikatt's job at Cedars-Sinai. It's his family's calling. His sister is a respiratory therapist at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center. His mother was a respiratory therapist at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center, until she retired just before the pandemic emerged. Mother, son and daughter can practically finish one another's sentences when it comes to talking about the work they all love so much. And that innate understanding helped sustain Chazhikatt through the most harrowing days of his career.
"We understood what we're going through, we helped each other cope by debriefing every day," Chazhikatt said of his regular conversations with his mother and sister over the last year.
In those conversations, Chazhikatt and his mother and sister commiserated about what it meant to be "swamped" with COVID-19 patients and the stress of seeing co-workers fall ill as the virus spread like a wildfire through the community. Some days, talk of the virus was simply too much.
"I definitely have had days that I'm sick of talking about COVID. I've been dealing with it all day," Chazhikatt said. "Some days, I just can't talk about it and instead prefer to unwind and watch a Lakers game."
Even the support of his mother and sister, however, could not fully prepare Chazhikatt for the stress of work and for the sorrow he saw among friends and others in the larger community.
"There's been a lot more death in my immediate circle, more than I've ever experienced in my life, and the emotional toll that's had on me and my circle of friends, it's been tough," Chazhikatt said.
Chazhikatt recalls thinking the virus would have passed by the time summer 2020 arrived, but then the summer spike slammed hospitals, overshadowed only by a record-breaking winter surge in November and December. By that time, emotional and physical relief were in short supply.
To stay resilient, Chazhikatt would continue his daily debriefs with his mother and sister. He would make time to work out at a hotel gym to de-stress for months to come. Because he lived with roommates and was in contact with COVID-19 patients, he moved into a hotel close to work for several months—the cost was underwritten by Cedars-Sinai and the state. The gym, it turns out, was one of the few silver linings to the arrangement.
Once he moved back home, he had to get creative to find ways to continue his workouts in his living room and backyard. "I would exercise to give myself some type of stress relief, since there wasn't anything else for me to do because everything was closed," Chazhikatt said.
Holding Steady in the Emergency Department
Sam Torbati, MD, co-chair and medical director of the Ruth and Harry Roman Emergency Department at Cedars-Sinai, says that exercise and family time have been critical outlets for clinicians.
"Everybody does different things to stay resilient," Torbati said. "I really enjoy time with my children and the time that I spent at home became even more special this last year, especially when I was able to teach two of my kids how to ride a bike."
Gunshot wounds, horrific car accident injuries, major burns, heart attacks—Torbati has seen it all during more than 25 years as an emergency medicine clinician. Although trained to handle the most daunting medical situations, Torbati said the pandemic was unlike anything he had ever experienced.
"To think that we were going to look back in a year and experience a pandemic that has resulted in the death of more than 500,000 people—500,000 lives lost. That's just not imaginable. It’s horrible," Torbati said.
Being on the front lines brought an extra weight of distress for Torbati, his immediate family and his department.
"As a department co-chair, in the very early days of the pandemic I would go home fearful, asking myself, what if everyone gets sick?" he said. "What if I get my family sick? What if something happened to my wife? What if I die? What if my wife dies? Who's going to take care of our kids? What if all our nurses and doctors get sick? How would we help our patients? How would this all work out?"
To keep patients, visitors and staff safe, hospitals adopted strict visitation policies. For Torbati, one of the hardest parts of the last 12 months involved restricting access to families whose loved ones were very ill or dying. Torbati too often had to be the bearer of the worst kind of news, telling sick patients' children that they couldn't be in the room to hold their parent's hand.
"We talk about people dying respectfully and peacefully, but COVID doesn't allow that to happen," Torbati said. "In most cases, it doesn't allow people to pass with their loved ones around them. Having to tell family members that they can't be in the room, that they can't be there as their loved ones are struggling through a very serious illness or dying—that’s been really hard."
While family and staff camaraderie helped Torbati endure the last year, he said the support shown by the community made a huge difference as well.
In 2020, more than 19,000 meals were donated to Cedars-Sinai staff and more than 21,000 gifts—including medical supplies, hotel room stays for frontline staff and monetary gifts—were donated in support of Cedars-Sinai COVID-19 efforts.
And then there were the drive-by salutes. Police, sheriff, and fire department personnel from across Los Angeles showed their gratitude by driving by the Emergency Department on the ground floor of Cedars-Sinai, lights and sirens blaring as they celebrated healthcare workers' selfless dedication.
"All the kindness, it gave us so much energy to keep doing our work," Torbati said. "They were so kind and grateful to us, and we were grateful to have their trust to care for them."
Read more from the Cedars-Sinai Blog: Healthcare Heroes | Nurses