Never has there been a time when we have more respect, appreciation, and genuine gratitude towards healthcare workers than now, especially during Nurses Week (May 7-12). The coronavirus, COVID-19, has cast a spotlight on a field that most of us took for granted. With this pandemic dismantling all that was “normal” to us, our perspectives have shifted, as has our understanding of what it means to work in the healthcare field. The concern is now shared, not only for the victims of the virus but for those on the front line that combat this silent killer each day.

Paula Katsikis Konstantinides, BSN, RN, CMSRN, a certified clinical Nurse at West Jersey Hospital/Now Virtua Health, walks us through the days and nights of being a nurse in the time of the coronavirus, and shares with us a glimpse, through her eyes, of the continued struggle in saving lives.

Paula is a graduate of Widener University and obtained her BSN degree in 1986. She began working for West Jersey Hospital/Now Virtua Health, almost thirty-four years ago and continues working for the organization. She has been awarded a nursing excellence award for clinical practice and a STAR award for leadership. She is also a member of the evidence-based practice council presenting nursing research at national and statewide conferences. Paula was instrumental in assisting her unit in achieving the coveted PRISM award for outstanding performance of a medical/surgical unit.

She grew up in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, where she and her family have been life-long and active parishioners of St. Thomas Greek Orthodox Church. Her faith has given her strength to help her persevere, not only through the difficult times of being a nurse but especially dealing with the coronavirus first hand. There she participated in several youth and young adult organizations and activities. She has been married to her husband, Manny, for thirty-four years, and they have two daughters, both who also work in the healthcare profession, one as a registered dietitian, and the other a registered nurse. Working during this pandemic is truly a family affair.

Please describe the current working conditions, place, facts, and the patients you are handling?

Currently, our healthcare system is treating many patients with the COVID-19 virus. As nurses, we work a twelve-hour shift, three days a week. I work from 6:45 AM to 7:15 PM. By the time I leave and get home, it’s 8:30, so a twelve-hour shift rapidly turns into a thirteen or fourteen hour day. On top of that, many of us are picking up additional shifts to fill the need. Every shift has a safety huddle, which focuses on the COVID patients, their needs, and how we are adapting the care we deliver daily, so we can best serve the patients.

One of the hardest things occurring right now is that we are providing care for some of the sickest patients, and there is no family present. Whether the patient is COVID positive or in the hospital for another medical reason, there is a strict no visitation policy. It’s extremely lonely for the patients. All contact is through the phone or FaceTime, and that’s also how we give updates to the family. If a patient is being discharged, we call the family to teach and review all their discharge needs.

Would you like to share with us a moment that really moved, shocked, or inspired you?

Early on in this pandemic, I was treating a patient who was very sick. I would speak to his wife several times a day to keep her updated. When he improved, we coordinated with his entire family a way for him to see them and to show he was okay. We took him to the window, and from there seven floors above, we saw his family below with signs and banners saying, “I love you,” and they were able to see each other! It was so moving! He cried, and we cried, too! The best part of this is that he was able to be discharged home several days later.

The research part of me was especially moved by another patient who was admitted and, in one day, had rapidly declined. He was transferred to the ICU, placed on a ventilator for more than two weeks. We did not think she was going to survive. Her medical treatment team was able to enroll her into the clinical trial using plasma from a COVID-19 survivor, which happened to be the niece of the patient. This patient has now been released from the hospital. A miracle, in my opinion!

How are you protecting yourself while you’re on the job and then going home to your family? What precautions have you taken?

The entire workforce wears a surgical mask all day; housekeepers, dietary, PT/OT, everyone. If you are providing care to a patient who is in quarantine isolation, you wear the appropriate PPE (personal protective equipment) necessary to care for the patient. That will include: head covering, face shield, N95 mask, surgical mask, isolation gown, which is applied and then removed each time you enter and exit a patient room. When I leave work, we scrub our shoes with bleach wipes, and when I get home, I remove my shoes in the garage, remove my clothes in the laundry room and immediately step into the shower. Only after that do I make contact with my family.

You are investing a lot of time caring for patients. Is the hospital offering any tools for you and the staff to cope mentally and physically? What steps do you personally take for your own self-care?

Our employer is offering a myriad of approaches to assist and facilitate all healthcare workers. We have counseling available, wellness webinars, at-home fitness routines/activities. There has been so much support from the community too. We’ve had food deliveries, businesses sending packages, signs of support posted all over campus, hand made cards with positive messages, and even pet therapy visits. All of this love truly does help keep us going.

This crisis has pushed me to focus even more on my health and keep my immunities boosted so I can continue to care for all the individuals who need it. I take pride in taking care of myself and my well-being through nutrition and exercise. I generally eat plant-based food, I exercise every day I’m off work, and I try my best to get sufficient sleep. I keep active by practicing yoga (these days through Zoom), and I spend as much time as possible outside gardening and yard work. When that isn’t possible, I’m big on binging Netflix.

You mentioned your daughters also work in the medical profession. Can you tell us more about how that makes you feel?

Both my daughters work in healthcare. My first daughter is a registered dietitian and works in dialysis. She also teaches at Monmouth University. She has seen some dramatic changes in how she practices both in the clinical setting. Patients are screened every day before entering the building. At Monmouth, the entire semester shifted to online classes, like every other school. My other daughter is a nurse and also works at Virtua Health. As a mom, I am concerned for them going into work each day, but as professionals in the same field, we can understand and support each other, as only healthcare workers can. I have trust and faith in the knowledge we have and our ability to protect ourselves and to use best practices every day. We talk or/Facetime almost every day, just to check-in and to decompress.

When you entered your profession, did you ever think you would experience a pandemic such as this?

When I entered the profession, it was just at the beginning of the AIDS evolution, so maybe I felt as though that was the biggest epidemic of my lifetime, but after years of practice and even more recently, there have been so many infections, including viral and bacterial, that it really has made me wonder. But I didn’t think it would impact the world as we see right now.

How has your faith played a role in this crisis?

I have a strong sense of faith, which allows me to move forward and accept where we are right now, and to be able to provide the best care I can, without fear. I frequently pray with patients, which also allows me to connect on a spiritual level.

The country of Greece has been cited as one of the best countries to weather the pandemic. As a Greek-American, how does that make you feel, and why do you think they have fared as well?

I keep looking at the virus rates in Greece and am astounded at how low the current rates are, especially with how significant they were in neighboring countries of Italy, Spain, and France. In speaking to my family in Greece, and listening/reading the publications coming out of Greece, it seems perhaps they took the social distancing very seriously.

Do you see healthcare changing after this pandemic subsides, and how will it affect your job specifically?

I am anxious to see how things will change. I know there will be massive amounts of research on the other end of this epidemic that will definitely change our current practice in medicine. What that means, it’s too early to determine, but remember, prior to the mid-1980s, we didn’t have universal precautions, so perhaps universal precautions will be enhanced to include more protection for all.

When the pandemic subsides, and the bans are lifted, what will you do?

This is a great question! On March 17, my husband and I had a trip planned for London for a week, and to see an English Premier League Soccer Match. Just a couple days before the trip, the president closed travel to Europe and the UK, so the trip was canceled and postponed until the fall. I pray we will still be able to go.

Thank you, Paula.