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With COVID, ‘It’s a whole new world’

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Savannah Mayerstein leans in to kiss her mom, Buffy Mayerstein, on the cheek during her day off from working at Lovelace Medical Center.

Monday, May 18:

Buffy Mayerstein has had trouble sleeping since Easter weekend.

That’s when the recurring nightmares began, flashbacks about COVID-19 patients.

“I see a patient and when they open their eyes they’re crying blood.” Mayerstein says.

It’s a complication known as disseminated intravascular coagulopathy where small blood clots that form in blood vessels can block blood to other parts of the body, which can result in bleeding or stroke.

“It’s one small thing that keeps replaying in my mind,” Mayerstein says.

A 35-year-old registered nurse at Lovelace Medical Center, Mayerstein tends to COVID-19 patients nearly every day. She works with critical patients in the ER and COVID ICU.

Buffy Mayerstein poses for a portrait in some of her personal protective equipment at the hospital. Mayerstein, a nurse who has been treating COVID-19 patients since the pandemic began, has a second job, too – mother. (Anthony Jackson/Albuquerque Journal)

On Monday, her day off, she makes macaroni and cheese for her 4-year-old, Savannah Mayerstein; 9-year-old, Kayleigh Blauwkamp; and 14-year-old, Mason Blauwkamp, while also doing yardwork and laundry and making sure her scrubs are washed for her shift the next day.

Throughout the day, she spends time with her daughters. They snuggle on a reclining chair, watching a movie, but within a second it turns into a tickle fight as Kayleigh and Mayerstein make Savannah squeal with laughter.

Kayleigh Blauwkamp holds open the door for Buffy as she carries her youngest daughter, Savannah, into her grandmother’s house before she leaves for work. (Anthony Jackson/Albuquerque Journal )

Savannah’s laughs turn to cries as she reaches toward Mayerstein, trying to wrap her arms around her mother’s neck for comfort.

Around Easter weekend, Mayerstein had to self-isolate for two weeks after an accidental exposure. She tested negative, but her absence was hard on her children – especially her youngest daughter, who was born with respiratory complications.

“I got these horrible crying telephone calls from Savannah saying, ‘I want to come home,’ ” Mayerstein says. “She would be screaming, ‘I want my mom.’ ”

Since then, Savannah won’t sleep alone.

Buffy Mayerstein and her daughter Savannah make breakfast before she leaves for work at Lovelace Medical Center. (Anthony Jackson/Albuquerque Journal,)

These days, Savannah tries to get her mother’s attention any way she can.

Despite the movies and time with her family, Mayerstein’s mind drifts back to work.

“There’s not really like a normal day anymore,” she says. After one Saturday shift, she drove home and “sat in the car for a minute.”

Neighbors Pat and Kristie Yeary have noticed her weariness. On one of her days off, they invite her to drink a cold cocktail of pineapple juice and vodka in the shade of their driveway.

Her moment of peace is interrupted as Kayleigh asks which takeout dinner is hers. Duty calls, and she’s back in the house helping her kids.

In Mayerstein’s home, it’s an early bedtime for her youngest daughter. Mason helps get Savannah’s pajamas on. By 7:45 p.m., it’s lights out for Savannah, who sleeps in her mom’s queen-size bed. Mayerstein follows after she does light cleaning.

Savannah plays on her tablet at the home of her grandmother, Teri Mayerstein, right. Mayerstein watches the kids while their mom works her nursing shift at the hospital where she treats COVID-19 patients.

By 8 p.m., Mayerstein is in bed. She wraps her arms around Savannah’s torso and pulls her in close.

This time, she’s hoping to have uninterrupted sleep.

270 reported deaths

6,088 total cases

• • •

Tuesday, May 19: It’s 4 a.m. and Mayerstein reaches for her phone to turn off the alarm. Barking dogs kept her awake much of the night.

With less than three hours of sleep she rolls out of bed, careful not to disturb Savannah. She flips on a hallway light and quietly makes her way down the stairs of her two-story home.

As the coffee maker hums, her phone rings. It’s 4:05 a.m. and her supervisor is calling with her assignment for the day. Today she’s working on the seventh floor, tending to COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit. She tries not to worry.

“I don’t know many of the ICU staff. I’m getting to know them, but because I move around so much … filling in and helping, I feel like it’s not my home,” Mayerstein says.

She sips coffee and puts on makeup, applying mascara and a special skin cream to prevent irritation when she wears her tight fitting N95 mask.

She takes another drink and looks up at the ceiling. It’s 4:59 a.m. and she can hear Savannah starting to move around.

She walks upstairs. A child’s sleepy voice breaks the silence.

Buffy gives Kayleigh a piggyback ride during her day off from the hospital.

Mayerstein carries Savannah down the stairs and puts on her gray scrubs and blue headband. She wakes Kayleigh, who waits at the bottom of the stairs as her mom tries to rouse her older brother. He wants to sleep in and stay home.

She shepherds everyone to the car, her cloth face mask, other supplies and Savannah’s purple tablet in her arms. It’s 5:27 a.m.

The first stop is her mom’s house.

The sun hasn’t yet risen when Kayleigh opens the door for her mom and sister who are greeted by their grandmother, Teri Mayerstein.

The kids, still half asleep, lie on Teri’s couch watching videos on their tablets. They say their goodbyes and Mayerstein gets behind the wheel. It’s 5:44 a.m.

Second stop, gas station.

Another phone call comes in. There’s been a last minute change.

Instead of working in the ICU, she’ll be in the emergency room, where she’s made most of her friends and feels the most comfortable.

Donning her Wonder Woman face mask, and carrying a protein shake in one hand and a bottle of water in the other, Mayerstein approaches the entrance of the hospital. She gets her temperature taken and sets out to start her shift. It’s 6:20 a.m.

At 9 a.m. Mayerstein receives a text from Savannah – a crying emoji and a picture of rainbows she drew. She also gets a message from Kayleigh. “I love you and I miss you. What time will you be done?!?!?!”

The text makes her feel good, but also a little guilty.

“I’m spending all this time caring for everyone else’s families and not my own,” she says.

After a 13-hour day tending to patients in the ER, Mayerstein finally heads home.

Her daughters are already asleep at their grandparent’s house. They will not be spending the night at home.

“I don’t think I’ll have any trouble falling asleep tonight because I’m super tired,” she says.

276 reported deaths

6,183 total cases

• • •

Wednesday, May 20:

Mayerstein will again cover shifts in the bustling ER, as three nurses are still out sick.

It’s likely to be a busy day. The hospital is getting more COVID patients from the Navajo Nation, all of whom will be in patient holding in the ER. On top of possibly working with COVID patients, Mayerstein will be tending to other patients with broken bones, strokes and other maladies.

“It adds an extra stressor, because the respiratory side of the ER is only 17 beds,” Mayerstein says. “We’re trying to keep the COVID-positive and (other) people as separate as possible.”

With a full night’s rest and a morale boost from yesterday’s patient recovery in the ER amid a grueling day, Mayerstein grabs her keys and starts up her pearly white Chevy Traverse.

The opening bars to “Rock Yo Hips” by Crime Mob plays as she smiles and bobs her head to the 2006 crunk beat.

“I’m in a good mood – my head doesn’t hurt, so I’ll play something gangster,” she says.

It’s a 27-minute drive to the Downtown hospital this morning, with light traffic over the Interstate 40 eastbound bridge over the Rio Grande. Wearing a blue paper mask, she enters the hospital.

Buffy Mayerstein removes her shoes and loose items in her pocket before entering her living room. Whatever is placed in the bucket gets sanitized to protect her and her family after working at Lovelace Medical Center treating COVID patients.

At the end of her shift, Mayerstein walks back to her car. It was a long day, and her head hurts. She takes off her badge and sprays disinfectant on each side before spraying her shoes and bag, a pandemic ritual she practices before she gets into her car.

It’s a quiet car ride back to her West Side home as she tries not to think about the day.

Her kids are at home waiting for her. Opening the door, Mayerstein starts removing things she carries that need to be disinfected, such as her bracelet, pens and lip gloss. Everything that needs to be disinfected is placed in a white basket by the door. Her daughters watch her as her son plays on the computer.

“Time to go decon,” Mayerstein says, grabbing a raspberry key lime hard seltzer and heading for the shower.

A short while later, she’s hanging out with her kids. Her second job as a mom doesn’t permit her breaks as she reminds her oldest to take out the trash.

Savannah is trying to do cartwheels near the futon. As Mayerstein puts down her drink and picks up her phone, Savannah knocks over her drink and a fizzy, white geyser erupts from the top of the can and over the brown futon. She sends Savannah to her room and cleans it up.

“I just yelled at my kid for being excited to see me. It’s not exactly stellar parenting,” Mayerstein says.

The house grows quiet as she sits against the wall reflecting on the days before the pandemic when she could go to the gym, visit friends or grab a drink with co-workers.

“All my supports and outlets are gone. That sucks,” Mayerstein says. “I’m exhausted.”

Tomorrow is Mayerstein’s day off.

283 reported deaths

6,309 cases

• • •

Thursday, May 21: It’s Mayerstein’s day off, but she’s still at it. She drops her daughters off at her mother’s house so they can swim while she goes grocery shopping.

It’s a quiet day as she prepares for work the next morning.

294 reported deaths

6,465 cases

• • •

Friday, May 22: Today, Mayerstein will be working in the respiratory emergency department with COVID patients. It’s going to be another long day, but she is optimistic.

Buffy Mayerstein cleans up a spilled drink one evening after working at Lovelace Medical Center.

“It’s a challenge, but I work with some of the craftiest, most innovative, smartest, badass people. So if there’s a challenge, we’ll overcome it,” she says.

There are many challenges, from tight-fitting N95 masks, goggles and face shields to exhaustion and emotional drain.

“I don’t have a spouse to have dinner waiting for me. I can’t go home, take a shower and go to bed. I still have baths to give,” Mayerstein says. “I have to still be responsible for other people’s lives before I go home … and I don’t have very much left to give.”

Bree Wayt, Lovelace’s ICU director, oversees more than 100 health care workers. She tries to care for her nurses by making sure their mental, spiritual and physical health are intact.

“I worked through the end of HIV and AIDS. I went through SARS and MERS and the Ebola scare … but nothing like this has ever happened during the course of my career,” Wayt says.

Mayerstein often works more than 60 hours a week.

Despite the long hours and sacrifices she makes, she doesn’t consider herself a hero.

Buffy Mayerstein reflects on her day after coming home from the Lovelace Medical Center treating COVID-19 patients. Mayerstein gets little time to unwind and relax before she has to wake up at 4 a.m. the next day to go to work.

“I work with some incredible people, and the skill, knowledge and courage that I get to see every day hasn’t changed. To have this sudden change in perception of what we do feels uncomfortable, because what we do as nurses hasn’t changed,” Mayerstein says.

Just outside the ICU, on the hospital’s ninth floor, Mayerstein approaches tables with dozens of folded paper bags arranged side by side in columns. Inside are N95 masks that have been sanitized and are ready to be reused alongside other PPE. Mayerstein finds the bag with her name on it.

COVID-19 “has completely flipped everything,” Mayerstein says. “It’s a whole new world.”

302 reported deaths

6,620 cases

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