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The Cost Of COVID: Life Lessons From Front-Line Health Care Workers

Joe Amon
Connecticut Public
Cathy Hernandez works as a respiratory therapist with Hartford HealthCare.

Chris Comfort says that at the start of the pandemic, Lawrence and Memorial Hospital in New London didn’t see a lot of COVID-19 patients. But he and other nurses on the medical-surgical unit kept their eyes on the scene unfolding at Greenwich Hospital at the other end of the state.

“They got hit very hard because they’re at the border of New York,” he said. “Basically, their whole entire hospital was COVID except for a very small designated non-COVID unit.”

He volunteered to go to help.

“It was definitely an eye-opening experience,” he said. “Patients that really should be in ICU are in regular medical beds because there’s just not enough critical care beds. You know, people were on immense amounts of oxygen. I mean, I’ve been a nurse for 19 years, and I’ve never seen people requiring this much oxygen ever in my entire life.”

He thought he’d be there for a week but stayed for three. Then COVID numbers started rising back home in New London. By the fall, there was a big spike in southeastern Connecticut, and Comfort described daily scenes of heartbreak and sorrow.

“You see families completely obliterated,” he said. “Or, one room the mother passes away, and the next room you have the son who has to now find out that his mom just passed away, but he’s still trying to recover.”

Credit Joe Amon / Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
Christopher Comfort is an ICU nurse at Lawrence and Memorial Hospital in New London.

He is still trying to recover from the loss of a longtime friend and colleague who died of COVID-19. Elva was a patient care assistant, and Comfort said he was always happy on days when they were assigned to work together.

“I knew that those sheets were going to be perfect,” Comfort said. “I knew that the patient was going to be cleaned up just the way they deserved to be. With Elva, she was born to be a patient care assistant. That was her heart and soul,” he said.

Cathy Hernandez discovered that her heart and soul were in respiratory care. Years ago, she’d had a severe asthma attack and a respiratory therapist saved her life. She decided she wanted that job.

“We’re the ones that intubate. We’re the ones that put in the lines,” she said. “We’re the ones that run the ventilators. I am able to breathe life into people.”

Still, over the past year -- time after time -- Hernandez was the one to remove dying patients from ventilators as they succumbed to the virus.

She recalled an emotional scene about a month ago with a long-married couple.

“He didn’t want anything, and the wife was bedside. And she goes, ‘Cat, you can fix him.’ I hold her and I’m like, ‘I’m sorry.’ I was like, ‘I tried. We all tried, but I couldn’t fix him.’ I can’t ... you can’t fix them all.”

Health care workers have made it through this tragic year, said Hernandez, by leaning on one another.

“We have each other. I think that’s the most important part,” Hernandez said. “I think everybody needs a therapist, I swear. I don’t care what part of your life. I think that has helped me, too.”

Hernandez admits she’s a bit of a workaholic. But she said she’s also someone who listens carefully to the wise words of her patients. Smiling, she recalled a final piece of advice from one woman who was critically ill with COVID-19.

“Have that extra piece of chocolate cake. Like that patient told me before she passed. She said, ‘Oh, wish I woulda had that last piece of chocolate cake, Cath.’”

Hernandez said that once she gets a day off, she’s planning to take an extra slice.

For more personal stories from those impacted by the coronavirus, watch The Cost of COVID, a Connecticut Public Cutline special. It airs Thursday night at 8 on CPTV and at cptv.org.

Diane Orson is a special correspondent with Connecticut Public. She is a longtime reporter and contributor to National Public Radio. Her stories have been heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Here And Now. Diane spent seven years as CT Public Radio's local host for Morning Edition.

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