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NM nurse reflects on life on frontlines of pandemic

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Darlene Sarracino

By April 7, about the time registered nurse Darlene Sarracino started working at New York-Presbyterian Allen, the hospital in Upper Manhattan had already recorded 59 deaths due to COVID-19.

At times, as many as 170 of the patients at the 200-bed facility were being treated for coronavirus.

“Four of the patients on my very first shift at the hospital passed away (due to the virus) that day or the next,” said Sarracino, 26, who is from Laguna Pueblo. “After finishing that first week of shifts, I was physically and emotionally exhausted. I was doing FaceTime with my sister in Los Angeles and she said, ‘You look rough.’

“I found a lot of comfort in writing about it. I find it easier to process the world when I write it down.”

Life and death

“Mami, abre sus ojos.”

Their turn – voicing love and pleading with her to open her eyes.

Maybe five minutes pass.

I turn the phone to face me – girl in the park is weeping, the woman in a cami, slumped.

That’s from “Life and death from bed,” Sarracino’s blank verse account of her experiences, primarily at Presbyterian Allen, but also in New York City outside the hospital.

The scene above describes a Zoom visit, facilitated by Sarracino, between a family of Dominican heritage and their mother, a middle-aged woman dying of coronavirus.

They all thank me for this call. I

explain that I am going to start a

morphine drip and that it is unlikely she

will arouse again.

Collective nodding and “please just make her comfortable” chorus

from my phone.

“I am sorry. So sorry,” I say.

They nod.

“Every shift, I have patients who are not progressing,” Sarracino said.

Darlene Sarracino with her father, Byron Sarracino, at Byron’s garden on Laguna Pueblo. The picture was taken just before Darlene, a registered nurse, left for an assignment at a New York City hospital. (Courtesy of Byron Sarracino)

Walking thesaurus

Sarracino grew up on the Laguna Pueblo reservation.

“I was a typical, lame home-schooled kid,” she said during a phone interview from her Manhattan apartment. “In my high school years, I walked around with a Roget’s Thesaurus. I write poetry a fair amount.”

Sarracino chose nursing over a literary career because she felt nursing would make a more effective impact on people’s lives.

“I am interested in finding ways to help people,” she said. “I can do that in multiple career paths, so I have multiple ideas. Right now, I am content in nursing.”

She graduated as a registered nurse after studying at the Albuquerque satellite campus of Grand Canyon University.

She worked at Albuquerque’s Presbyterian Hospital from 2018 to 2019 before embarking on a stint as a traveling nurse. She was in Los Angeles when the coronavirus pandemic kicked in there, but she moved to New York’s Presbyterian Allen in April.

“I was one of 22 travelers that started that first day (at Presbyterian Allen),” she said. “It was gratifying that we were so immediately needed. But it was overwhelming to know what the medical staff there had gone through, that some of them were sick with the virus.”

In memoriam

Sarracino writes –

My proximity to the virus is tangible, but my attitude is not so

concrete. Some days I sanitize the bottom of my shoes every hour.

Last night, I walked outside barefoot.

And then later in her poem –

But I am scared, so I wear my

face shield, and you are scared, so

you zoom from your bed. What do we

fear? Death?

“I think I’m scared because I’ve seen young people in their 30s, people with no other medical problems, get intubated,” Sarracino said. “Also, I know of medical workers who have died of COVID.”

The disease takes its toll in many ways. A 49-year-old emergency room doctor at Presbyterian Allen worked until she got sick with the virus, recovered and worked again, and then, during a rest break with her family in Virginia, took her own life.

Bulletins, “In Memoriam,” of a doctor,

dead – not by the virus – line the halls.

We play the Black-Eyed Peas’ “I Got a Feeling” on the overhead

speakers when a patient with COVID-19 makes it to discharge.

Sometimes I have the strength to clap, mostly I cry.

Cheers

Sarracino is scheduled to work at Presbyterian Allen until the first week in June, but said that might be extended.

“This last week, the rush of COVID has slowed,” she said. “We’ll see. No one knows what will happen. There could be a bump (in cases) because of the lifting of restrictions.”

Despite the deaths she has witnessed at Presbyterian Allen, the grief she has shared with people she has met only on her phone, the numbing fatigue she has endured, Sarracino has found things to appreciate and admire during her time in Manhattan.

I only hear the cheering at seven pm on days off, and the bridge of

my nose is chafed – I hope it doesn’t scar.

It has become a nightly custom in New York City during the coronavirus epidemic for people to stop whatever else they are doing at 7 p.m. and audibly salute the first responders and medical personnel risking their lives to care for people stricken by the virus.

“Someone starts it,” Sarracino said. “Then, people start opening windows, and cheering and clapping and banging on pots and pans. It is quite lovely.”

She said she will miss the dedication and teamwork of New York health care workers, such as those she has toiled beside at Presbyterian Allen.

“I’m proud of them, from the people who clean the rooms to the people who serve the food to the administration,” she said. “There is a real feeling of community. They have people’s backs.”

When her time is done in Manhattan, Sarracino intends to return to nursing in New Mexico.

“I do love these grand cities (Los Angeles, New York), but my future lies in New Mexico.”

And beyond coronavirus.

Carry yourself through it.

Don’t hold on to the bedrails.


 

“Life and death from bed”

(A poem by Darlene Sarracino)

I use my shoulder to push open the door to my patient’s room.

My first site is the foot of her bed.

Her breathing greets me –

Desperate inhalations scrape the back of her throat, and I watch her belly push air out and in and out and in and out.

Her eyes are closed, mouth dry – again. No swabs at the bedside. Shit.

I go to the bathroom, wet a paper towel, and dab her oral mucosa.

Gloved fingers shaking, I punch into a zoom call from my personal phone. Staring back at my face shield are several different views. I glance briefly – a man on a white couch with a restless toddler, girl in a park, woman in a black cami, others. The woman in the black cami speaks. “Hi … we all here … can we see my mom now?”

I lean over, adjust my patient’s oxygen mask and turn the phone for them to see.

“Mami, su familia”

“Mami, su familia”

I rub her shoulder.

“Mami, abre sus ojos”

Their turn – voicing love and pleading with her to open her eyes.

Maybe five minutes pass.

I turn the phone to face me – girl in the park is weeping, the woman in a cami, slumped.

They all thank me for this call. I explain that I am going to start a morphine drip and that it is unlikely she will arouse again.

Collective nodding and “please just make her comfortable” chorus from my phone.

“I am sorry. So sorry,” I say.

They nod.

The zoom call ends.

I grab the cold hand lying limp next to me and say

“My dear, I am so sorry.”

I only hear the cheering at seven pm on days off, and the bridge of my nose is chaffed – I hope it doesn’t scar.

Bulletins “In Memoriam” of a doctor, dead – not by the virus – line the halls.

We play the Black-Eyed Pea’s “I Got a Feeling” on the overhead speakers when a patient with COVID-19 makes it to discharge. Sometimes I have the strength to clap, mostly I cry.

I see protesting and agree, this is killing people’s ability to live well. But it also made it impossible for so many to die with dignity. I do not believe one is more important than the other.

Today, women at the beach staged a protest in front of “CLOSED” bathroom signs. One woman shouted that it was barbaric. I agree.

I also know that leaving the bedside of a patient who is crying, dying, and begging me to stay in a language that I cannot fluently comfort her in is barbaric.

And while my taxi driver this morning spoke of his nephew – dead from the virus, I still cannot help but feel joy at the reopening of the corner deli below my apartment.

My proximity to the virus is tangible, but my attitude is not so concrete. Some days I sanitize the bottom of my shoes every hour. Last night I walked outside barefoot.

Before coronavirus, we rose at 5:30 am to the practice of self-visualization and drove to work to the sounds of positive podcast manifestations but then spent eight hours in disaster management planning.

Now, rising is more like rolling – over to grab a laptop, whipping up a new messy bun, and living from bed – suddenly the lives of those dying and living are not so different. Engaging with people from the living side or the dying side now involves so many protective layers – it is hard to call it connection.

This virus, this pandemic, this unseen force – moving us towards an existence unpalpable by the nearest heartbeat.

That, my friend, is barbaric.

But I am scared, so I wear my face shield, and you are scared, so you zoom from your bed. What do we fear? Death?

How do you die?

I suppose the same as how you live.

Softly?

Like the fingers of trees sliding across the wind?

Loudly?

Like the cracked font of a Slipknot concert tee?

The how doesn’t seem to matter so much, after this.

Just that you do.

Softly, loudly, with shoes or without.

Carry yourself through it.

Don’t hold onto the bedrails.

Wear your concert tee shirt until the pits are reduced to holes.

Listen to the Radiohead.

Live alone in quarantine, die with your nurse.

Death and life exist in concert.

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