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On Being A Nurse During A Pandemic

Meet Warren and RJ, both ICU nurses from the opposite sides of the country. Warren, who’s been a New York nurse for 20 years, talks with RJ from Los Angeles who became a nurse shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Both men talk candidly about how being on the frontlines has changed them as nurses and as people, along with the frightening reality when the patient is a family member. They also share the one thing they both do regularly to help them cope with the tragedies they witness on a regular basis.


On Being Nurses During A Pandemic

RJ Dela Cruz: I got into this field because I wanted to help. You know, I was an accountant before, and I really was looking for that part of myself to help someone in the time of need and..

Aliw Pablo: Meet RJ, a surgical ICU nurse from Los Angeles, who made a career change and found himself in a new field at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

RJ: I feel like the nursing school, it prepared you for the boards, but you know, once you get out onto the field, I felt like I was a deer in headlights, my first few shifts.

Warren Sabino: Oh, trust me. Yeah, I’m surprised that I did become a Nurse.

Aliw: RJ talks with Warren, a cardiac ICU nurse in New York with 20 years of experience and shares some advice on how to get through tough days in the nursing field.

Warren: You know, I remember one of the older nurses who retired already, they used to tell us, “Don’t take any of these things home with you.” I pray multiple times before my shift, during my shift, and then after my shift.  It’s just one of the ways that helps me cope.

[Show Open]

Aliw: Welcome to Making Changes, I’m your host, Aliw Garcia Pablo. On today’s episode, we’ll hear from RJ and Warren, two nurses from the opposite sides of the country. At the time of this recording, we were in the middle of the second surge of the pandemic here in California. They’ll talk about the challenges and changes this pandemic has brought to the lives of nurses but also the frightening reality of what happens when the patient is your child.  We’ll be flies on the wall as we listen to what helps them cope, seeing the frailties of life each and every day, for the sake of helping others. Let’s listen in.

RJ: Hey, Warren, it’s really nice to meet you. You know, they always say that no one knows what you’re going through when you’re a nurse, except for another nurse.

Warren: Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you and to talk to you RJ, as well. I know, being a nurse definitely is stressful, but also rewarding. But I’m glad to talk to a male nurse as well.

RJ: I feel like they’re seeking out male nurses now. In my cohort, because I’ve only been a nurse for about a year and a half. So fairly new. 

Warren: You’re a baby.

RJ: I want to be as experienced as you one day. I wanted to ask you, Warren. So I was wondering how it is in New York right now?  How is the state of the pandemic?

Warren: As you know, like when the pandemic hit, New York was one of the first cities that really got affected by it. And, you know, we were really suffering for those first few months. And at that time, we didn’t really know what to expect. So it was really kind of nerve wracking, you know, I never, in my 20 years of experience, ever experienced something as serious as this virus.

RJ: Just looking in, in the beginning from California. I have to admit, I was kind of skeptical. I was thinking, what most people thought. Oh, it’s just a really bad case of the flu. And then, when you actually see your first COVID patient, it opens up your eyes, you know.  You don’t understand the severity of it until you see it in person. 

In the beginning, we changed my unit. I’m a surgical ICU nurse, and we changed our unit to a COVID unit. And we changed it for about maybe three, four months in the beginning. And then our cases went down. So we converted back to a surgical ICU. And then the second wave came. Did your years of experience as a nurse, did it prepare you at all for something like this?

Warren: Well, I mean, I think when it comes to this pandemic, I think no amount of experience can prepare you for something like this. You know, I’ve seen things and done things that I never thought I would do as a nurse. And you’re used to being in pressure, stress, high stress situations, as well, I’m also a cardiac ICU nurse. You know, your experience does prepare you for but because of how unique this situation is, how we have to gown up and take the necessary precautions to protect ourselves first. 

RJ: Yes.

Warren:  You know, that was a change, like, when you’re an ICU nurse, a lot of  time is very important. And, you know,  especially when patients are not doing well, minutes, seconds are very valuable to have to stop and gown up and take that time away, and to take care of these patients who were really, really sick. I mean, it was, it was definitely a change and a different experience as a nurse. You know, our unit can only hold 20 patients, but when it was at the height of the pandemic, we were doubling people in rooms,

RJ: Wow.

Warren: If you see this picture is unbelievable, because in the hallways, you see all these IV poles with multiple IV pumps flooding the hallways.  We’re like the nurses are all over the place. You know, when you see how crazy and how busy… I mean, when I look at it now, now that it’s a little calm down here in New York, I just kept like, all of us are like, well, I can’t believe that we went down that whole thing.

RJ: Yeah, I think we kind of did the same. Or we’d have the IV tubing and everything extensions. Outside of the room. We also had the vents outside of the room at one point, or they were extended outside. So that was new. 

Warren: Wow.

RJ: Yeah, so I don’t know. Like you said, now you look back at it. It’s like, how did we do that? Yeah, how do we manage that? But we did.

Warren: Well, it can be overwhelming. But you know, you go through it. But someone who’s just starting out with only a year and a half of experience. And I couldn’t even imagine how they must have been feeling or dealing with it. Because like you said in LA it’s one of the hardest hit right now. How are you handling things over there?

RJ: You know, it’s been tough as a new nurse, but you have to realize what, or why you got into this field, you know. I got into this field, because I wanted to help. You know, I was an accountant before, and I felt like I wasn’t helping anyone. And I really was looking for that, that part of myself to help someone in the time of need. And I felt that this profession really does that, especially now because this pandemic, you can’t, your family can’t even be in the room with you.  You have iPads, you have FaceTime, you have, actually like zoom meetings with family members who can’t be in the hospital and you’re like, the patient’s family. And it’s been pretty tough. But to that point, I feel that I’m able  to stay afloat by our faith and our family. I guess in a way it was good that I’m new, cause I don’t know what normal is as a nurse yet. So, it’s like throwing someone that doesn’t know any better.

Warren: That’s a great way of looking at things actually. I never thought of it that way. I mean, like, being new to get that experience.

RJ: It was pretty hard. In the beginning starting as a fresh nurse in the ICU. Actually, the cases in California are slowing down. And now that I’m gaining patients that are non-COVID, it’s kind of weird, surreal, because, like you said, the putting on the protective equipment and the mask and the gowns, and now that I walk into a patient’s room, that’s not a COVID patient without all that stuff…

Warren: Right.

RJ: I feel strange. I feel like am I protected? Am I doing this right?

Warren: I totally agree. I mean, even after this whole pandemic is done, we’re all talking about it at work,  it kind of changed. I can’t imagine taking care of patients without a mask and a shield. It might not be COVID, in the future who knows what other, I mean, I don’t want to think that way but, you know, it’ll change the way we take care of patients. 

RJ: Yes. 

Warren: Who knows what else will be there?

RJ: Yeah, I don’t know about you but before COVID hit, I hated wearing a mask in a patient’s room. Even in the hospital, I hated wearing a mask. But now I feel like I need to.

Warren: Totally. I mean, sometimes I would do things not patient care, but things in a room without gloves. Now, I can’t even imagine, like not putting on gloves the moment you walk in a room now. 

RJ: Yeah.

Warren:  Going back actually, if you don’t mind me asking if we can just for a second. 

RJ: Yeah. 

Warren: You said earlier that you were an accountant before? 

RJ: Yes. 

Warren: Then you went into nursing. And so how did that happen? How did you become a nurse from being an accountant? I know, you said, you wanted to help people. But how did it become nursing?

RJ:  You know, I’ve always had this interest in the medical field. But I was stubborn about… Let’s face it, Warren, there’s a stereotype about Filipinos being nurses. And I was so stubborn about that. I was like, I don’t want to fall into that stereotype. I resisted it for so long. But I was stuck, I felt stuck in Accounting. So jobs were being sent overseas and I have a family. You know, honestly, it’s been a blessing, because probably a lot of people during this pandemic have been laid off. And I feel like I probably would have been laid off. If I didn’t become a nurse at this time. Yeah, it’s a blessing.

Warren: I agree. More than ever. At this time, it’s a good career choice, RJ.

RJ: There’s no turning back now, Warren. 

Warren: I know.

RJ: Honestly, we’re both in ICU and for me, there was one point where I would come into work, and there would be a patient who would just pass away every shift. And that was tough. I was taking care of this patient for at least three weeks. And that was my patient for every shift. Because the family requested me. And in the end, he passed. That really affected me. And it’s so hard to think about this now, because the family was so grateful. They even wrote me a nice letter and saying, thank you for just being there when we couldn’t because of all that COVID stuff.

Warren: I don’t know, I don’t think you can ever get used to someone dying on  your shift. You know, there are those situations where you kind of know there’s not much you can do anymore for patients. You know, I remember one of the older nurses who retired already. They used to tell us, “Don’t take any of these things home with you.” Like any of these, like when it comes to… don’t let it weigh you down.  If you can save someone’s life, you’re trained to do that. Just trust in what you’ve learned. And what I do is I always just pray every…I pray multiple times before my shift, during my shift, and then after my shift. It’s just one of the ways that helps me cope with kind of experiencing all that and not letting it affect me to the point where it affects who I am and what I do.

RJ: You see these COVID patients, a lot of them personally, the ones that we see, they don’t have anything really wrong with them, except for COVID. COVID is real. It doesn’t discriminate against anyone. We get patients who are young, and they’re in their early 20s, you know?

Warren: Actually, in the beginning, my son actually was affected. 

RJ: Wow!

Warren:  My youngest son, yeah, he was 12 at the time. He came down with a fever. And of course, at that time it’s alarming because that’s one of the biggest symptoms that you have to look out for. So when it happened, I was just like, we were kind of hoping it was just something—nothing too serious. It was just like, maybe just, like a 24 hour thing, it’d go away. And then my wife called me in the middle of my shift, I went to work. And she’s like, “He has a 104 fever.” And I was like, “What?”  You know, obviously I was kind of nervous about it. Because we’re in the middle of [a] pandemic. So, everyone in the hospital has COVID and no one wanted to spread it. So they told you know, don’t go if you can handle the symptoms at home. And he was my son, I can tell he was getting like when he sleeps, his breathing was labored. And he was just so tired. And he couldn’t even walk to the bathroom. Or if he did, he’d be so tired. If so we finally brought him in. And then the doctor,  they took some blood and they couldn’t get a blood pressure on him. 

RJ: Wow.

Warren: They were like, yeah, they were like, he doesn’t look good. I think we’re gonna send him to the ER. So he would stare me blank in the face. And he was like, “Dad, I can’t see.” And I was like, “What?” I was like, yeah, so then I was like, “Okay, sit down.” We had to [lay] him down.  We had to call an ambulance to get him to the hospital, just to the hospital. But all I could do in my mind was pray. 

I was praying so hard. When we got to the ER, in the Emergency Room and then all of a sudden they asked to, they wanted to get his weight. So they stood him up. They couldn’t get a blood pressure at all. And then they were like, you know what, “Sit back down.” And then they finally got one that was like 60 over 40, 30. And then all of a sudden, they called like a mini code. So then all of these doctors and all these nurses start rushing in. And of course, I’m from the ICU, of course I know what’s going on. 

RJ: Yeah. 

Warren: And I know what they’re about to do. But then, you know, my son just looked at me and I just looked at him, I just I go, “you’re fine.”  I was like, “they’re just gonna give you some medicine, you’ll be fine.” I just kept looking at all like maybe like five or six people were putting on IVs, giving him fluid, giving him… putting monitors on him. And then when it really hit me, they started bringing the intubation tray in and central line placement kits, all those things that you do when you get into an emergency and I was just like, “Please God.” Like, “please.” But he was a trooper, he would just look at me, I just [looked] at him. He never lost consciousness. He was just kind of, I guess, a little nervous. But I would just say, “Oh, you’re fine. No, you’ll be fine. No worries.” Finally, they took us up to the pediatric ICU, I guess during that time, they seemed like kids that were having, not COVID, but I guess they were labeling it the Kawasaki disease? 

RJ: Oh, yeah. 

Warren: Cause it was like presenting like that. But I think now they named it, what is it?  The Multi-system Inflammatory Syndrome. But after a few hours, he made a quick turnaround.  During that whole time the only thing other than that we can think of to do was to pray like I, you know, we would call some of our ministers. And I [called] every minister I can call. 

RJ: Yeah. 

Warren: Because when it comes to us, that’s the real solution, the real solution, the real treatment for us. So, I had like multiple prayers and only after a few hours, he recovered quickly. Yeah, all his medicine, they were able to go down. Like, I think we were probably in the ICU a total of two days.

RJ: Wow.

Warren: And our doctor and his cardiologist are all like, “wow, like, it seems like he never even had it.” Like, he’s great. He’s doing well, and there’s no restrictions. Like, he’s doing well. Thank God, that was probably the scariest thing that ever happened to me in my life—it’s because of that. You know, it’s just different. It’s so different when it’s your own family. As nurses we know how to take care of these patients, we know what to do. But when it’s your own family, it’s just a different experience. Like, it’s unbelievable.

RJ: When it hits close to home like that, you feel a little helpless and you just got to trust in your faith in God and just keep praying.

Warren: Totally. I mean, if it’s just, you know, God has always been good. And, I really believe that He was there for him and for our family, because even with, like, when it comes to myself,  I mean, I’ve been exposed. I mean, not exposed but dealing with COVID patients so closely, though, these almost a year, not lucky, but just blessed to be…

RJ: Exactly.

Warren: I don’t have to worry about that.

RJ: You know, I pray all the time, before every shift, before I leave the house, that God is with me. Asking for guidance, and especially to help me when I feel stressed out or any anxiety. As a new nurse, I definitely get anxiety just thinking about going into work. You know, what am I going to see today? What’s going to… what kind of patient is going to be thrown at me or what kind of situation is gonna happen at work that I don’t know how to, or that I’ve never experienced before.  But, all I do is pray and I know that there’s nothing that’s going to happen, that if He’s with me that I can’t handle. 

RJ: How do you think that this whole pandemic has changed you as a nurse, and a person in general?

Warren: You know,  just being more aware. I mean, it made this happen so quickly, and out of nowhere, and it just shows how delicate life is. Being a member [of the Church Of Christ] really puts us at an advantage. When it comes to dealing with what’s happening in the world and like during this time you’re even closer to God.

RJ: It just made me appreciate everything more. You know, it just appreciate your family, appreciate being able to have, like you mentioned more in the faith that we have. You kind of take these things in life for granted that this pandemic has pretty much brought to the forefront of your mind like, “Wow, I’ve been so blessed.”  I’m going to try not to take any of that for granted.

Warren: And no matter what situation– if it’s the pandemic, if it’s something life threatening, if it’s anything that happens, it’s just knowing you’re a member and knowing God is on your side, you can take on anything.

RJ: So, hey, Warren, I just want to say thanks, and I really appreciate you taking your time to talk to me and as a new nurse, just having someone to talk to about all this, it’s really been a blessing. So thank you so much, Warren. 

Warren: I was such a…I really had a good time talking to you. You know, I wish you all the best in your career and your family life. Hopefully, when this thing gets figured out, if I ever go to California, I’ll come see you guys.

RJ: Definitely, I’m 15 minutes away from Disneyland, Warren. So come on over.

Warren:  Nice. Will do will do.


Aliw: Hey, Warren, and RJ! Gosh, listening to you guys, you know, all of these images come to mind when you guys are talking about your real life situation in your hospitals or just being with the patients that you’ve had. We can only imagine how challenging your every day must be. Now, RJ talking to Warren, what do you think was your biggest takeaway from your conversation today with him?

RJ: You know, even for Warren, this pandemic has been new. But although he has 20 years of experience, the experience helps, but Warren, you still rely on your faith and your family to get through this.

Aliw: And Warren, what would be your advice to anyone who is studying to be a nurse, especially now that the world has completely changed, you know, so much from this pandemic? Any pieces of advice you’d want to give that may be different from when you started as a nurse 20 years ago?

Warren:  My advice to anyone who wants to become a nurse—I say do it. It’s very rewarding. If you have that passion and if you have direction where you want to help people, I would definitely say, keep on it. And you’ll know, you won’t be disappointed with it. 

Aliw: Well, I just want to say thank you both for your time. And for being at the frontline during this terrible pandemic. And we pray for both of you and your health and your safety and your families. And, in case you don’t hear it enough, we just want to thank you for doing all that you do. Thanks, guys.

RJ: Thank you for connecting me to Warren. It’s been great talking to you.

Warren: Thank you. I really enjoyed this experience. And it’s really uplifting. So, thank you.

Aliw: Thanks to RJ and Warren for taking the time to talk with us. And we’d like to thank all the nurses and frontline workers who have been such a tremendous help to families during this pandemic. 

Now, if you found value in what you heard in this episode, be sure to share it with another frontline worker or another friend who could use this conversation in their life right now. Be sure to subscribe to the Making Changes podcast on Apple or Google podcasts, or download the INC Media app to stay up to date with new episodes and check out our Making Changes Instagram account so you can see the faces behind the voices. Thanks for listening and may your change uplift you.