Through It All, Duke Nurses Stand by COVID-19 Patients

Jennifer E. Engen

A nurse for 39 years, Mary Ann Fuchs can’t think of another time when she was prouder to be a nurse.

During the pandemic, nurses have dedicated themselves in renewed efforts to the charge of providing the best care possible for patients. Fuchs is inspired by the seamless dedication Duke nurses have displayed as comforter, lifesaver, fill-in family member, and fearless caretaker.

“We wouldn’t have gotten through the pandemic without nurses, not just locally, but across the country and around the world,” said Fuchs, vice president of Patient Care and system chief nurse executive for Duke University Health System. “There’s no doubt that nurses, like other people and other team members, rose to the occasion. They did whatever it took.”

At Duke, approximately 1,300 of the 6,500 nurses at the three Duke hospitals have cared for COVID-19 patients in intensive, step-down, and progressive care units. Other nurses looked after patients in their clinics or filled roles in virus testing or administering vaccine doses.

As the pandemic reaches its second-year anniversary, here are some of their stories.

Faith During Uncertainty

For 21 years as a Duke University Hospital nurse, Rose-Annie Ofori started and ended her workday at Duke University Hospital by praying. She prayed before leaving her house, before patient rounds and when she returned home.

That didn’t change when the pandemic erupted. She just prayed that her patients and colleagues would survive coronavirus. Faith has kept Ofori grounded in the face of a deadly threat.

“You have to have something to hold onto because you are losing everything,” said Ofori, who cared for COVID-19 patients in the Adult Medicine/Step-Down Unit, which treats people who need intermediate care but are stable enough to not require intensive care. “You don’t know the outcome of this process, so you have to have a higher power to hold on to.”

After graduating from Winston-Salem State University in 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in nursing, she joined Duke University Hospital, where she has typically worked with general adult patients. Since the pandemic, her duties have revolved around COVID-19, providing high levels of oxygen, medicine, and support for patients until they need critical care. Many times, she held a patient’s hand, closed her eyes, and prayed for their protection.

Ofori has been inspired by the teamwork and dedication she has seen from nurses in her unit and how they cared for sick patients.

“We played a very major role in this pandemic in the sense that we went there to take care of people when family can’t be there,” Ofori said. “We stepped up, worked long hours, difficult hours. Some may say that this is what you’re paid for, but we do have a choice like everybody else. Though this is what we are paid for, we chose to stay in and do it. It shows the love we have for the job that made us stay at the bedside and do whatever we have to do to help others.”

Gillian Hayami, clinical nurse at Duke Regional Hospital. Photo by Justin Cook.

An Impulse to Help

Gillian Hayami has always had a desire to help in a crisis.

When she was a kid, she dreamed of working on a disaster response team. After attending nursing school in her 30s, the pandemic arrived four years into her position at Duke Regional Hospital.

“I just see a crisis, and I want to run towards it to help,” said Hayami, a nurse in the Intensive Care Unit. “I think a lot of nurses would tell you the same thing, so when the crisis came to our communities, we were primed to respond.”

In the ICU, Hayami has cared for intubated patients of all ages who have damaged lungs and need oxygen and sedation levels constantly maintained, and ventilators monitored around the clock. Many patients she saw, otherwise young and healthy, didn’t recover from their illness.

“Death is a part of the ICU, but this is just different,” Hayami said. “For me and a lot of my colleagues, it just felt like it was really demoralizing.”

But Hayami fought back, day after day, focusing her attention on the next patient and solving the next problem. She designed a retractable IV suspension system that strung tubes over a bed and out of a room, allowing nurses to change critical IV infusions without having to don personal protective equipment. The system allowed nurses to respond immediately to keep patients more stable and safer.

She also coordinated a process that allows patients to have videos calls on iPads with loved ones.

“My unit has stepped up over and over and over again,” Hayami said. “We’ve done everything within our capacity, short of cloning nurses and creating beds where there are none, to take care of everyone that we possibly can.”

Reece Chapman, clinical nurse at Duke Raleigh Hospital. Photo by Cornell Watson.

Rekindling a Love of Nursing

As the Delta variant surged over the summer, Reece Chapman got to know patients in the Progressive Care Unit at Duke Raleigh Hospital. Chapman cared for them, assisting with oxygenation, nursing interventions and other support until they needed a higher level of care.

When a particular patient Chapman had gotten to know was taken to the ICU and placed on a ventilator, where they passed away, Chapman cried after work and sought comfort with his wife, Kellay, to ease his sadness and anger with COVID-19.

“I haven’t fully processed it, but I know I keep frustration on top, so I don’t feel the grief,” said Chapman, who has worked as a nurse at Duke for five years. “There’s probably a healthy balance that I’m figuring out. But I’m feeling the grief, and the pain a little bit more for everybody.”

In the time since, Chapman has focused on self-care such as listening to the jazz of John Coltrane or pushing his daughters in a swing in his backyard. At work, positive moments like decorating patient windows on birthdays have kept his spirits up.

Despite long and difficult days, the public health crisis rekindled his early love for nursing, especially at Duke Raleigh.

“COVID made me really fall in love with Duke Raleigh,” he said. “I re-realized how good the team was, not even just nursing, but also with the doctors being super involved from every level of our interdisciplinary team. It’s a special team and place. That’s the thing that brought me back and keeps me enjoying my job.”

How has the pandemic changed your life? Send us your story and photographs through our story idea form or write [email protected]

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