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Home from the front lines

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Jeff Tolentino, 34, a nurse at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, gets a hug from his daughter Lillian, 6, during a surprise party for him at SWAN Park in Santa Fe. Tolentino just returned from eight weeks helping COVID-19 patients at a hospital in the Bronx borough of New York City. Around a dozen people, plus a fire truck and ambulance from the Santa Fe Fire Department, surprised Tolentino with a “Hero Nurse” welcome at the park. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Two months ago, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s desperate plea for help dealing with the coronavirus pandemic fell upon the ears of Santa Fe nurse Jeff Tolentino.

And the 34-year-old, who specializes in intensive care unit health, responded.

Tolentino, who works at Christus St. Vincent Hospital, has just returned from an eight-week stint at Lincoln Medical Center in New York City’s Bronx borough.

“My wife and I were very much into watching the news and we really like the way Gov. Cuomo was doing his briefing, presenting the info,” Tolentino said. “But something really struck a chord with me when he said, ‘We need help here.’ At the time, there was nothing really going on in Santa Fe, specifically.”

In normal times, Lincoln, in a downtrodden section of New York City, is the third-busiest emergency room in the country. But this was so much beyond that, he said.

“I felt like I needed to go out there,” Tolentino said. “At first, my wife wanted me to go somewhere not as crazy. But I knew I wanted to go where it’s the worst. I knew I could handle it mentally. I knew I could deal with the craziness. I was warned beforehand that it was like a war zone and it definitely was.”

Although he knew that he was entering one of the country’s epicenters for the virus, it was hard to be completely prepared.

“I knew how bad it was, but it didn’t hit me until the first day,” he said. “It hit me on the floor. It was insane. I never thought I would ever experience anything like that.”

The hospital usually has two ICU rooms; one for medical and one for surgical.

When Tolentino arrived, seven additional, makeshift ICU units were spread throughout the hospital.

“The conditions were less than ideal,” he said. “The unit I was on was a pulmonary clinic that was converted into an ICU. The conditions were very much not safe.”

On every shift, Tolentino and other nurses would each have six COVID-19 patients.

“You have to keep their doors closed because of the intubations,” he said. “So all we could do was take a quick peek at their vital signs, check their critical medications to see if anything was going to run, and when they were expected to run out or else bad things would happen. Then, you close the door. Chaos. Every single person was doing that, making sure everybody was alive on the monitor.”

The first two weeks in particular was the worst, as the city’s cases spiked and there wasn’t nearly enough help.

“As far as the deaths, the most I saw in one day on my unit was four or five. In one day,” he said. “It’s just weird.”

And there was so little anyone could do.

Jeff Tolentino

“We were just treating their symptoms. Doing experimental drugs,” Tolentino said, ticking off medications like Remdesivir, Hydroxychloroquine, Azithromycin, Z-Pack. “I can’t even remember them all. We threw everything at them and nothing was helping them. Things just kept getting worse.”

And those early days brought another worry. Tolentino said he had a scratchy throat and his sinuses were kicking up.

“The first week, my throat was sore and my nose was runny,” he said. “Then I realized I was just adjusting to the air. Walking through New York is rough. The air is bad. It sounds weird, but I would get these weird tastes from the air.”

After the first couple of weeks, the crush began to let up as additional nurses arrived, but the danger was ever present as he was forced to ride the subway from his hotel to the hospital every day.

“New York City was like a ghost town for the first weeks I was there except for the subway and other public transportation,” Tolentino said. “Especially in the morning, I was literally elbow to elbow, most of the time standing up.”

Hard, obviously, to gain much social distancing in that type of environment.

Jeff Tolentino, 34, a nurse at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, gets a hug from his wife Christin and his daughter Lillian, 6, during a surprise party for him at SWAN Park in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Throw in the constant exposure to virus victims and a stupefying dearth of proper safety equipment, and it is a wonder that Tolentino arrived back home Tuesday healthy.

But he was tested twice for the virus, as well as for its antibodies, and came up clean, including just before leaving.

He saw many, many people, however, who were not as fortunate.

“Things aren’t over-exaggerated,” Tolentino said. “I saw it firsthand. This disease is horrible. It’s like nothing I thought I would ever see.”

There were people who appeared fine in the morning and by the evening were being intubated.

“It just seemed like it was out of a movie,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense. People would be OK one minute and then they’re not. I definitely saw it with one lady. She was fine in the morning, just on a little bit of oxygen, but toward the end of the day, she had to be intubated. I wish I had an opportunity to follow up on her because I never knew what happened to her.”

Another patient was Facetiming in Spanish with a family member.

“They were speaking Spanish, which I don’t speak, but I could hear the strain and the sadness from the wife’s voice,” Tolentino said. “It was just heartbreaking. He passed later that day. He was healthy, with no history, but got hit with COVID, and kept deteriorating and eventually didn’t make it. Those are the heartbreaking things.”

Those are the types of memories that will be hard to store away, he said.

“I had a concern coming back here that it would feel different,” Tolentino said. “I compare this to war. A soldier going off to war, then coming back to normal life. I wondered if I was going to have PTSD.”

Other nurses who did similar stints said they wanted to return because they got used to the chaos.

“I definitely know I am not,” he said. “I am ready to be back home with my family and get back to regular life, whatever that is now. I loaned my help and my service to those who were really in need. And I’m so happy I was able to stay in good health, and mentally I was able to cope it with it.”

It helped that he had strong support from his family, his supervisors at Christus and even the community, Tolentino said.

“I’m just so thankful we were fortunate enough to have family in Santa Fe and they were great,” he said. “Even the community was very supportive. My wife posted I was going on a Santa Fe bulletin Facebook page and so many people were very much supportive, wishing me the best of luck and the best health. I even had a bunch of masks and gloves donated to me before I went to New York, which was great.”

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