Nurses were the quiet COVID-19 heroes Salinas caregivers describe the front-line battle

Heather Haynes | Provided photo


By Sophia Espinosa

Heather Haynes felt the call to help last year when COVID-19 swept through New York City.

A nurse since 2007, Haynes — who works at Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital — said she worried about the spread of the virus even before others started stocking up on the essentials early in the lockdown. And when she learned that the numbers of victims were skyrocketing in New York City, overloading hospitals and medical professionals, she decided to help.

“A few weeks before I went to New York there were YouTube videos and TikToks of nurses who responded out there and they were just sobbing,” Haynes said. “I knew I had to go.”

“I have flashbacks all the time” Heather Haynes, Nurse at Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital

Haynes’ travel experience during the pandemic was unique, but she is among the hundreds of Monterey County nurses who are trying to return to “normal” after virus-related hospitalizations have slowed. While most of the rest of the world was sheltered in place and figured out how to work from home, front-line workers like Haynes continued to show up to work. They faced the unknown. And now that COVID-19 numbers have started to decline, their trauma lingers.

Kyreen Delossantos | Provided photo

Haynes traveled to New York as a visiting nurse and worked at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, where she stayed for four months. She described scenes of people collapsing on the streets, and ambulance sirens blaring nonstop. For the most part, she could only help comfort patients who were severely sick.

After her time in New York, she took some time off to rest, but eventually returned to the COVID-19 wing at Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital. Haynes said she also was diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. “I have flashbacks all the time,” she said. “I can hear it. I’m constantly worrying that it will happen again.”

At Natividad Medical Center, nurse Odelia Garica described the major changes in operation that took place in the postpartum unit, where she works, during COVID-19. A nurse for eight years, she works with sick moms and newborns, and because of the new pandemic regulations she was limited to working with two patients at a time.

Odelia Garica | Provided photo

She said there were a lot more preterm births during the pandemic, and deliveries at 37 weeks happened more frequently. Garica said the experience was very isolating. She was able to overcome the isolation and emotional stress, she said, by taking “personal time” to relax.

And back at Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital, Kyreen Delossantos said she had given birth to her child a few months before the shelter-in-place order. With the health of her newborn in mind, she said she took extra precautions to keep her baby safe when she returned to work in the telemetry unit, which had been turned into the COVID-19 ward.

Delossantos has been a nurse for 14 years, and she said she didn’t know what to expect when she returned from maternity leave. She said she hasn’t had a chance to process the suffering and the anxieties until recently. In the moment, “it was fight or flight,” she said. She credits fellow nurses and the support they showed one another for helping her get through the experience. “As the number of cases start to decline I’m starting to process it all,” she said.

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Young Voices Media Project teaches Monterey Bay area teens multimedia skills to report the news from their communities. This project was generously supported by the Clare Giannini Fund.