GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Sam O’Brien had just returned to work after quarantining for 14 days due to contracting COVID-19. She’s a registered nurse at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center’s Mainland Campus and didn’t have an assignment on her first day back.
Soon enough, she was given one. That’s how she met Joey Ortiz, a 46-year-old Hammonton resident with Down syndrome who was hospitalized with the virus.
Ortiz was admitted on Mother’s Day and stayed for three weeks.
“I can only imagine how he was feeling being isolated and never being away from home before,” O’Brien said.
She could tell Ortiz’s spirits were low as he would only give one-word answers, and she had an inkling his vocabulary was likely more robust than that.
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“I thought if I could cheer him up, then he would open up a little more,” she said.
The nurse picked up a black marker and started drawing on the glass window of Ortiz’s hospital room door. She drew a smiley face, flowers, a cat and a dog.
Connecting with patients, and their families, is part of a nurse’s job, said Kim Clements, clinical director for critical care and emergency services at AtlantiCare. But making that connection amid a global pandemic, when social distancing is encouraged and masks are mandatory, is a little harder.
But it’s not impossible.
“We go into nursing and hold people’s hands and hug families. We’re in people’s personal spaces,” Clements said. “Not being able to do that is difficult, so it’s nice to see people getting creative. Going forward, I think that’s part of our future.”
The creativity was comforting for Ortiz’s family as well.
Gladys Ortiz, Joey’s mother, cares for him on a daily basis. Due to the virus, she could not visit her son in the hospital and had to trust in the hospital staff that he was given the best care.
If she could have, she would have been by his side day and night. Instead, her daughter, Norma, talked to the nursing staff two to three times a day to check on Joey’s condition.
“The nurses were very nice. I was very happy,” Gladys Ortiz said. “And Joey seemed OK. Quiet and scared, but OK.
“But I cried every day.”
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Ortiz was treated so well by his nurses that he once told his mom on a phone call that he wanted to stay in the hospital.
“I don’t want to come home,” Gladys Ortiz recalled him saying.
“They loved Joey a lot,” she said of the nurses. “But I’m happy. I’m very, very happy because I have my son.”
And even though all of the nursing staff members work to make every patient feel comfortable and happy, O’Brien felt a deeper understanding of what the COVID-19 patients were going through because she had the virus herself.
“One patient said, ‘I never want to feel like this again,’ and I totally get it,” she said.
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But she knew she couldn’t hug them or hold their hand, so finding a different way to make them smile felt good.
“Even though that was one isolated incident, it’s not the only time we connected with anyone,” she said. “It was a little snapshot of what we do on a daily basis.”
“It’s inspiring,” she added. “It makes me feel like I’m doing something right … as far as life choices go in becoming a nurse.”
Clements said O’Brien leading the way by drawing on the window and making a patient smile has been uplifting for the whole team.
“Everyone should be kind because not everything is rainbows and butterflies,” O’Brien said. “That took me two minutes to make somebody’s day.”