COLORADO SPRINGS. When Colleen (Walker) Berenguer ‘11 graduated from St. Mary’s High School, a career in nursing wasn’t on her radar. Yet, nine years later, her days have been filled with caring for patients in Meridian, Idado, with a virus that just a few months ago no one could have imagined. Berenguer is one of several St. Mary’s graduates who are on the frontlines caring for COVID-19 patients across the nation.
While the graduates are all working in different areas of the country and come from different nursing backgrounds, the shared experience of working with COVID-19 has united them. Many have remained in touch since high school graduation, while others are reconnecting again with the Pirate family now, but all are finding much needed support and encouragement in their friendships.
Tenley Barr ‘11, who normally works in a cardiac surgical ICU in Denver, is currently working in the COVID ICU at NYU Langone Health in Manhattan. Barr describes her days of caring for COVID-19 patients as “busy and intense,” as she administers seven to 10 medications, watches various monitors and machines in the rooms, and handles basic patient care requirements.
While the degree of care that COVID-19 patients need is similar to those Barr treated in the cardiac surgical ICU, the lack of resources and time has made formulating specific treatment plans practically impossible. She said the sheer number of critically ill COVID-positive patients they are encountering in the ICU is overwhelming. The resources needed to keep the patients stable are strained, making it difficult for the ICU nurses to give the meticulous care they are accustomed to providing.
“Our shifts are spent racing from one emergency to the next trying to keep people alive. They crash out of nowhere, and when they crash, they crash fast and hard, often leaving the teams of doctors and nurses helpless to save them,” Barr said. “Honestly, now there are times when I end a shift feeling inadequate and defeated as a nurse. I never felt that way before. Now, I simply do not have enough time to do the little things to provide the kind of care or comfort for patients I normally would. I have to remind myself to focus on the big picture — on helping patients stay alive another day. I have to remind myself when I go home that I’ve done everything I can for my patients, that I’ve done my best, but I struggle with it.”
While neither Merdian, where Berenguer works, nor Nashville, where Dani (Cichon) Stone ‘11, works have been hard hit during the pandemic, both said that working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 fight has been a sobering experience. The range of reactions to the virus has been surprising, Berenguer said, with many young people having no symptoms at all to patients in their mid-40s seeming fine one day and deteriorating rapidly the next.
“You realize how serious it is when you see people who are otherwise healthy, with no other underlying conditions, and they are on oxygen and can’t make it to the bathroom on their own,” Berenguer said. “One of my patients was just 19 years old. After a five or six day stay in the ICU, the patient came back to the COVID unit, but then died. It’s humbling to watch this virus.”
The need for strict protocols for wearing personal protection equipment while treating highly- contagious patients combined with the shortage of such equipment available has added to the stress of the nurses’ daily shifts. Katie (O’Donnell) Whitt ‘08, who is a critical care ICU nurse in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, said medical staff must be careful when putting on and taking off their protective gear so as to not contaminate themselves in the process. The shortage of protection has resulted in the hospital reusing most of the gear, which Whitt says goes against everything they have been taught to do.
“If a patient is suspected of having or has COVID-19 and starts to decline, you can’t just run in the room to save them. You have to correctly put on all of your gear first and do what you can with very limited staff in the room,” she said. “It makes for difficult situations when a patient is having respiratory difficulties on the ventilator or is experiencing a cardiac arrest. As nurses, we always put our patients first. With COVID-19, we have to be very conscientious of ensuring we have proper protective equipment prior to jumping in and helping a patient. We have to protect ourselves and our fellow staff.”
Life during the pandemic has been isolating for everyone, yet even more so for those working directly with the infected. The nurses’ shifts are long. Early in the outbreak, Stone was isolating from her husband when she was home. Both Berenguer and now Barr are working in cities far from their families.
Needing connection with nurses outside of those she sees daily, Berenguer has reconnected with many of her St. Mary’s classmates since the pandemic began, including Barr, Stone, Alicia Fish ‘12 and Amber (Leckey) Duval. She had lost touch with many of her classmates in the years since graduation, but has found that the St. Mary’s family was eager to re-establish friendships that hadn’t been nurtured since high school. Berenguer, who started working as a nurse in July 2019, said it’s been wonderful to reconnect and to learn from those who have been in the profession longer.
“I reached out to some of the nurses I knew from St. Mary’s,” Berenguer said. “We’re all in different nursing areas, but we all have something to give to each other. Using that old network has made me a better nurse. St. Mary’s is a tight knit community, which is such a unique thing. It’s so easy to feel isolated. This experience has been a reminder that I need to seek community.”
While Barr has remained close to her best friends from St. Mary’s since graduation —including Renata (Bucher) Kolinko, Amber (Leckey) Duval, Stone, Katie Condon, and Anna Morton — and said they have always been wonderfully supportive, their support means more to her now. Barr said Jordan Burns, another St. Mary’s friend, has helped by reaching out to contacts she has in New York, providing whatever Barr has needed during her stay in the city.
“All of the girls are so good to send me texts or video messages of encouragement and love,” she said. “They check in regularly to make sure I’m doing okay in New York City and to share stories of the exciting things happening in their own lives to help distract me from some of the sadness and challenges that are so prevalent out here. SMHS afforded me many blessings, including a great education. No less a blessing was the opportunity to build friendships with amazing people, friendships that remain intact and strong today. I think that says a lot about the quality of the SMHS experience.”
(Amy G. Partain is director of communications for St. Mary’s High School.)