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When the Nurse Becomes the Patient: Getting Personal With an Abington Hospital Nurse About Her COVID-19 Experience

Vibien Patnugot

There is a saying, “ignorance is bliss,” meaning if you don’t know about something, you don’t worry about it.  The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about heightened concern for many, but most people do not have a full understanding of what it’s like to have a ventilator placed or how seriously ill a person is who needs a machine’s help to breathe.

When Vibien Patnugot, RN, a nurse on Abington Hospital’s Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU), came down with COVID-19, she did not have the benefit of this ignorance. Her job is to care for the most critically ill patients. 

“I was well aware of COVID-19 even before it came to the U.S. but as a nurse you think, ‘Oh, this won’t happen to me,’” she said.

The Start of Symptoms

On March 25, Vibien went to work as normal. Part-way through her shift, she began experiencing difficulty breathing and had to leave early.

“My shortness of breath persisted, then the dry cough began and eventually a headache,” she said. “It got worse overnight, and I didn’t sleep well. I was so scared that I wouldn’t wake up.”

Her symptoms progressively worsened and she was scheduled for testing at Abington’s COVID-19 Temporary Testing Site. At the testing site, she was directed to remain in her vehicle, while a physician conducted an assessment and nasal swab through her vehicle’s window. 

The doctor who performed the assessment was concerned about her oxygen levels. Vibien was directed to go to the emergency room and she was admitted to the hospital. Vibien thought she would just need oxygen for a few days and that everything would be fine.

Fear and Knowing

In spite of being very sick, it became clear to Vibien that she was not improving as she had hoped.

“I saw on the monitor that my oxygen rate was okay, but my respiratory rate was not good,” she said. “After the results of my arterial blood gas test, I knew what my fate was and I began to cry.”  Vibien knew that she was going to need the help of a ventilator to breathe.

In that moment, Vibien struggled both with concern for herself and what lay ahead, but also for her mother, for whom she helps to care for.

“I was scared. I put on a brave face but I was crying inside,” she said. A big part of Vibien’s concern was that she had her mom at home and she depended on her.

One of the things that provided some sense of solace was knowing that she was being cared for and supported by her colleagues.  Knowing that her co-workers were there to support her and care for her was a source of great comfort.

“My MICU team leader was there for the intubation, and I remember hearing her say, ‘Vibien, it’s okay.’ It was reassuring, and I was confident that she knew what she was doing,” she said.

Going Home with Cheers of Support

After being on a ventilator for six days, her condition began to improve. During this time, the support she received from her colleagues was vital, especially since visitation has been restricted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When my nurses were in the room, they took the time to talk to me. My MICU team leader would check in on me. This really helped, especially in those moments when it felt like I was alone,” she said.

Vibien Patnugot Discharge Day

Finally, after 17 days in the hospital, Vibien was ready to return home. Her discharge day included an overwhelming show of support from fellow staff members.

As she was wheeled outside, Vibien was met with a sea of colleagues cheering, clapping and holding signs offering well wishes.

“It’s so nice to know just how much people care,” she said. “I told myself I wasn’t going to cry anymore, but that gesture meant so much. It was so touching.”

“We were all very concerned for Vibien while she was fighting the virus.  Her recovery and discharge was a much-needed morale booster,” said Annmarie Chavarria DNP, MSN, RN, SVP, Patient Care Services and chief nursing officer, Abington – Jefferson Health. “There are no words to describe how it made everyone feel in the midst of caring for many critically ill patients. It was a very emotional moment to see her returned to her family.”

“I am so appreciative of my colleagues who checked on me and the doctors, nurses and therapists who helped care for me while I was in the hospital,” Vibien said. “Between my co-workers and my family, I have such a strong support system.”

Vibien says it was important for her to share her experience to provide hope during these dark and difficult times.

“I’m usually a very private person,” she said. “But if I am able to give people hope - my coworkers, my family, anybody - then I am willing to share my story.”

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