Kerri-Ann Libera is an emergency room nurse at two hospitals. She works at a small hospital in Norfolk, Virginia, called Bon Secours DePaul Medical Center, and at the larger Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital, a trauma center in Virginia Beach. Libera grew up in Wethersfield, Connecticut, and moved to Norfolk, Virginia, in 2012 to attend Old Dominion University. She interned at DePaul, and after graduating in 2016, she was offered a job there. Today the young nurse works long hours caring for Coronavirus patients under challenging conditions.
Libera’s brother, Anthony, is the long-term significant other of Blue Muse staff writer, Taylor Corazzo. We asked Corazzo to call Libera to discuss being a nurse in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, the complications within hospitals, and how she has been doing her part to keep herself and the ones around her safe.
“Every day before work, she puts on her navy blue Grey’s Anatomy scrubs, her black clog like shoes, and throws her hair up into a bun. To her patients, she’s the one stitching them back together, making sure they’ve gotten their meds, and helping families after they lose a loved one. To her co-workers, she is a charge nurse, directing them on what to do next or picking up the slack when the ER becomes too full. To me, she’s a friend, someday a sister-in-law, and a person I admire.”
How do you feel walking into your shift?
Walking into my day is nerve-racking because I don’t know what to expect. Everything is changing every day: the personal protection equipment -PPE- we wear, the different guidelines we receive; there’s never any consistency.
What have you been doing to protect yourself and others outside of the hospital?
I’ve been self-isolating. I try not to go out anywhere because I’m at a high risk of spreading the disease. I’ve been told I’ve been around multiple patients who have tested positive, which makes me nervous. I haven’t been seeing my mom, I won’t let people over the house, and if my fiancé’s home, I change in the garage to keep germs from coming inside. I keep all my work stuff in the same area and wipe down my lunchbox before I leave the hospital.
What are some of your personal concerns?
It’s scary to think of what can get inside of you. The virus is affecting young people, but not as bad as older people and people who are compromised. Luckily for me, I am younger, and I don’t have any respiratory history, but I am scared. For instance, my mother has respiratory, history so I haven’t seen her because I don’t want to pass it along. My biggest fear is passing it to someone and never experiencing the symptoms myself. I do everything I can to stay healthy. I’ve been trying to exercise, eat better, follow the CDC guidelines, and make sure I’m following all the right PPE precautions to stay as safe as I possibly can.
One issue hospitals have been facing is a lack of personal protection equipment.
At Sentara Hospital, all of our PPE is in a locked bin at the charge desk with a sign-out sheet. I have to write down exactly what I take; they’re tracking every last bit of our PPE. We get one surgical mask per day, along with one N95 mask. With our gowns, we have hooks on the outside of the patient’s rooms. When I go in to see a patient, I put the gown on, do what I need to do, wipe the gown down with disinfectant wipes, and hang it back on the outside of the door.
Doctors and nurses are being asked to reuse personal protection equipment, coming up with creative ways to store their reusable items. We reuse N95 masks the most. Our current thing is putting them into a plastic Tupperware container. When I take off my N95, I have to put the plastic container up over my face over the N95, then I take the straps off and wrap them around the container, so I’m not touching the outside of the mask.
What are some inconsistencies involving personal protection equipment?
I work at two different hospitals, and both of their PPE requirements are different. One day I spoke up at my smaller community hospital because my manager questioned me for wearing protective eyeglasses and told me they’re not needed. So I went on to the CDC website, printed out the CDC guidelines, and gave them to her. By the end of my shift, everyone had protective eyewear. They can only do so much. The CDC has guidelines, but it is hard to keep up because the guidelines keep changing as the coronavirus progresses. But it’s worth speaking up for sure. Luckily, I didn’t get in trouble. I actually got the staff what they needed, but for the people who are getting fired for speaking up, that’s wrong.
How do you feel about the doctors and nurses who have lost their jobs due to speaking up about the necessary personal protection equipment guidelines?
We’re speaking up trying to come up with different solutions. No one here has been ridiculed for it; they’re actually trying to help. But for doctors and nurses who have lost their jobs, I don’t think that’s fair because they’re taking it home to their families. People live with the elderly or have small kids at home; there are people that aren’t going home, they’re living in trailers and it’s just not fair. They don’t have the proper equipment, so criticizing them is not right.
What frustrations are hospitals having with testing?
One of the most frustrating things is when a patient has all the symptoms, but the doctors don’t want to test them, mostly because the testing is limited. Another frustrating situation is when the ER doctor doesn’t want to test them, but the hospital doctor wants to test them. There have also been a lot of false negatives happening. We’ve had patients come in to be tested, test negative, and get sent home. Then they’ll come back in with worse symptoms, and they actually test positive.
How long is it taking for test results?
Testing is taking up to 10 days to come back.
How are your hospitals handling the testing?
We were doing drive through tents for the testing, and I think there was such an influx of tests that testing centers couldn’t handle it. Sentara Hospital is able to do their own testing, however, they only do rapid testing on the patients who are admitted. The rapid testing allows us to get results back in two days. We don’t want to swab patients a ton of times because it’s a swab up the nose, which is really uncomfortable. This is why it’s important to know which test is being done, where it’s getting sent, and making sure everybody is on board. We obviously want to know admitted patients’ results sooner, because nurses are actively taking care of these patients.
What precautions are being taken for COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients?
Just like the grocery store, germs float in the air. At Sentara, when a patient with respiratory problems comes in, they get a mask upon arrival, and they’re not allowed to take it off, even when the nurse is not in the room. We’re trying to protect everyone’s well-being. When we transport them, before we leave the room, we wipe down the side rails and put a clean sheet over the patient up to their chests to contain everything in the bed.
At my smaller hospital, we don’t have private rooms—only curtains. All the minor patients go to the fast track area, and the rest of the ER is our COVID-19 area. Because the doctors are on the other side of the ER, the nurses oversee patient care. We have two rooms that we save for if we need to intubate a patient, but we can only use one of them. We need the other empty room for gowning and ungowning, so the air-flow doesn’t escape.
At the trauma center, we have one negative pressure room where all breathing treatments are held. They are brought to the patient’s room only after waiting three hours for it [the room] to be cleaned. That wait is a downfall. It’s why a lot of doctors aren’t allowed to give breathing treatments anymore. Instead, they’ve gone to inhalers. Because there’s a shortage of inhalers, we have to ask ourselves, “Do we have them use their own inhaler if they have it?” We try to figure out the safest way to give these treatments because we don’t want anything aerosolized in the air to affect other patients.
On Sunday, April 26, Sentara Hospital witnessed its first patient death due to COVID-19.
I wheeled him to the glass door so his family could see. He was unconscious as I held a phone to his ear and they said their goodbyes. After about ten minutes of them speaking, we lost his pulse. He was the first confirmed positive death in our hospital. He was super healthy, in his late forties with two children. He was tested on Thursday and found out he was positive on Saturday. I don’t think he was showing bad symptoms when he was being tested because he was discharged. He must have deteriorated quickly as the weekend progressed. This was the most heartbreaking thing I’ve experienced in my four years of being a nurse. When it comes to the patients who are very sick, I feel helpless because we don’t have any medication to make them better. I also feel helpless to the family because I can’t let them see their loved ones. It’s all just heartbreaking.
May 6, 2020, Libera gave Corazzo an update on life in the emergency room.
The economy has to eventually open up for people to return to their normal lives, but it’s scary. Social distancing has helped significantly in limiting coronavirus cases. I hope that when we do reopen, people are responsible. It needs to happen slowly, and they need to track the virus to ensure safety.
Since COVID-19 cases in the ERs in Virginia have remained slow, they are being treated as true ERs. We are seeing people who are truly experiencing emergencies, but I don’t think COVID is going to disappear. It’s a strand of the common cold, and I think it will return yearly, similar to the flu. People need to be mindful of germs and distancing to some extent. The healthcare system has a lot of decisions to make, and currently, things are changing every day in relation to how we gown appropriately and treat potential COVID-19 patients.
Any positives to come of this historical time?
I think one of the best things that has come out of COVID-19 is the amount of quality time families are getting to spend together. A lot of times, life is too busy, and people don’t get to spend time with loved ones. There are so many unknowns about the virus, and many things have been negatively impacted, but it’s best to reflect on the positive.
Taylor Corazzo is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine
Headline Image Credit: Kerri-Ann Libera