How We Live: An ICU nurse on the frontlines of COVID opts for positivity in the worst of times

Updated: May. 5, 2021 at 11:25 AM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - March 24, 2020.

It’s a date Cheryl Alega will never forget ― the day Queen’s Medical Center, where she works, admitted its first COVID patient.

“I exactly remember the date because that was the day when I had to contact the kids’ dad to make sure they weren’t home when I came home from the hospital,” she said. “I was that scared of it.”

Shortly after that first patient arrived, Alega started working in the Queen’s designated COVID unit. That’s where she spent so many hours in 2020 ― on the front lines of the pandemic. And she said while the initial fear of spreading or catching the virus has abated, she is still navigating uncertain times.

In her 28 years of working as a nurse in Hawaii, California and New Jersey, Alega said she has never experienced anything like the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a nurse at Queen’s Medical Intensive Care Unit, she is used to actively saving people’s lives and working in a high-stress environment. But she said with COVID, it was different.

“Within a month or two, we became a 100% COVID unit, and it’s a 19-bed ICU,” she said.

“It was just a much more heightened stress level with the fact that we don’t know what this disease can be like. We don’t know the exact treatments. Everything was pretty much experimental. We just did whatever was recommended by CDC and with the collaboration of the doctors.”

Alega said the fear of running out of PPE, beds and ventilators were also stressors.

And then there were the 12-hour night shifts.

“We would end our shift really, really tired and just drained ― physically drained, mentally, and emotionally,” Alega said.

This story is part of an ongoing digital series from HNN called “How We Live,” which explores the ways that COVID-19 have upended our “normal” and brought about change ― and adaptation.

Losing patients to the virus also took a toll on her mental health.

“You would think we’re used to it, but it’s still kind of brings us down. Like sometimes we have a huddle to help us deal with deaths and all that even though we’re so used to it,” she said.

“Mentally, it left a lot of us not being able to sleep well. A lot of people getting stressed about it, a lot of people thinking of moving to another unit, a lot of people not wanting to come to work, which was very understandable. But on the same note, we had to pitch in because we know how it feels like to work short-handed.”

Besides the unknowns, she said the worst fear was getting COVID and passing it on to loved ones. She said one of the hardest parts during the pandemic was having to be isolated away from her family.

“My children had to be sheltered-in-place away from me initially because the fear of giving it to them,” she said. “It was hard coming home to an empty house. Usually they make my day, like they make my being so tired go away by just hugs and kisses, but I had none of that for months.”

A year into the pandemic and now fully vaccinated, Alega can once again safely be with her family.

“All in all, I’m just grateful and I’m happy to be alive and happy that my family is safe,” she said.

Although COVID has taken a lot from her, including two family members in the Philippines who died from the virus, she said that the pandemic also brought her closer to people. “The sacrifice of being away from my family really affected me, but we could talk on FaceTime or online,” she said.

“All of us were kind of Zooming in just chatting, sharing K-Drama titles, just to ease off our minds from the stress level of taking care of COVID patients. So, it kind of connected me more to my friends online, from the Philippines and all around the world.”

Alega said that having these conversations were crucial for self-care.

“We try to take care of ourselves as well, because we believe that we have to take care of ourselves first before we can take care of other people,” she said.

Although she said COVID will probably not become a thing of the past anytime soon and “our normal” will never be the same, she is hopeful that things will get better.

Alega said she is especially optimistic as more people become vaccinated, but she advised that getting the vaccine does not mean you are invincible.

She said wearing masks, social distancing and practicing basic hygiene and sanitization are still necessary to overcome this virus.

Her main takeaway from the pandemic? Always be your best self.

“Being the best you around people, not just your loved ones, like being the best person next to your co-workers, next to your neighbors, like in the grocery store ― you just have to be nice because you just don’t know that you’re the last interaction of that person.”

Above all, Alega said she has learned to live life to the fullest and to be grateful for the things that seem ordinary.

“I was looking forward to the sunset every day. That was just my thing, that was my way of coping and still be grateful for whatever we have,” she said.

“That was the only time that I can say like, despite everything, we’re still lucky to be alive.”

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