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Juan Ramirez On The Life Of A Traveling Nurse During A Pandemic

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

OK, let's turn to California. That new, highly contagious coronavirus strain that's quickly spread beyond the U.K. - it's now here in California. This as the state sets new records for COVID-19 deaths. Hospitals are overwhelmed. And space at intensive care units is dwindling. Hospital leaders are warning they may have to ration treatment and medicine. I spoke with Juan Ramirez, who's a traveling nurse. After stints in Texas and Arizona, Ramirez is currently working as an ICU nurse at the Shasta Regional Medical Center in Redding in northern California. And he says some of his colleagues are burning out.

JUAN RAMIREZ: It's the same story when you move from one hospital to another. The staff is just tired and wanting to see what else there is out there for them. So far, it's been difficult. You know, we have to deal a lot with family. And, you know, we had to withdraw care on a COVID patient that was not getting any better after weeks of being ventilated. I can still remember the conversation I had with the patient's significant other.

FADEL: Yeah.

RAMIREZ: You know, they were kind of, like, in the honeymoon stage of their relationship. And it was very difficult for that person to let go. She mentioned something about the patient wanting to spend, like, the holidays with her family and finally get to meet them and spend the holidays with her child and finally get to meet him, as well. And it's been hard.

FADEL: You mentioned that a lot of your colleagues have thought about just moving on. Is that just 'cause it's all become too much?

RAMIREZ: It has. It really has. The environment - you can only take so much before you try to look out after yourself and take care of your own mental health. And they're tired. I mean, they're people, too.

FADEL: What about you?

RAMIREZ: It's been in my mind. But, I mean, this is early on in my nursing career. I've been a nurse for almost 2 1/2 years. It's crossed my mind. Even though I'm 26 years young, I've thought about it, especially because my family gets worried for me.

FADEL: Is there a particular patient that you've treated in these past 10 months that stays with you?

RAMIREZ: I definitely do think of a young 34-year-old female that we had to withdraw care back home in the Rio Grande Valley. She was leaving a young 7-year-old behind. Like everybody else, it's really sad that you can't see your family member directly in the ICU because you're in a COVID unit, and you don't want to expose anybody else.

FADEL: Yeah.

RAMIREZ: I remember I had to hold the phone, so I could FaceTime the spouse and the daughter. And I'll never forget because the daughter was encouraging her mom, who was, you know, sedated and on a ventilator, to keep pushing and keep trying to get better for her, so she could go home and play her favorite game with her. And, you know, in the back of my mind, I'm just thinking, one, she's in denial because she knows that, you know, we're going to go ahead and withdraw and then, two, how difficult it must be as a child to have to see your mom go so young and having to say goodbye with her not being able to respond and, you know, having this ventilator tube down her throat. I mean, it's just - so much was going through my mind while I was holding that phone. And I don't understand how I was able to stay strong and just keep the phone right next to her and listen to this whole conversation because it was very, very sad.

FADEL: Today's the last day of 2020. And you describe some really painful moments that mark what this year has been. When you think about the year ahead, are you hopeful?

RAMIREZ: I have a very positive outlook as far as next year. I know there's a vaccine going around, finally. We're trying to tackle the situation from all sides. And we can. The guidelines are out there. I think it's going to come down to the American people to strictly follow those guidelines and get vaccinated. You know, I feel like we're finally going to see the light, but there's still so much work that has to be done. There's a couple difficult moments ahead of us, as well.

FADEL: Thank you, Juan, for what you do. And thank you for joining us. Stay safe.

RAMIREZ: Thank you so much for having me.

FADEL: That was Juan Ramirez, a traveling ICU nurse at the Shasta Regional Medical Center in Redding, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: December 30, 2020 at 10:00 PM MST
An earlier headline misspelled Juan Ramirez's last name as Ramerez.