EDITORS NOTE: This is one in an occasional series about the men and women in Orange County working to combat Covid-19.

Last year the emerging threat of the coronavirus pandemic threw doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, hospital administrators and medical workers into the unknown.

Tasked with fighting a virus like none they had ever seen before – Orange County health care workers saw patients die alone, families suffer great losses and worried of infecting loved ones with a virus that doesn’t always show its symptoms.

The Voice of OC has reached out to several health care professionals in the county to share their experiences following the one-year anniversary of the pandemic. In this article we highlight nurses.

Here are snippets of their stories:

Vanessa Martinez

Twenty five-year-old Vanessa Martinez started her career as a nurse at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton right around the time the pandemic started in Orange County.

“It’s been pretty interesting and hectic at the same time and at the beginning we were very unsure what to expect,” Martinez said.

25-year-old Vanessa Martinez served in the COVID unit at St. Jude Medical Center after recently starting her career as a nurse. Credit: Courtesy of Vanessa Martinez

She added the reason she became a nurse was to help others.

“I was unsure of whether it was safe for me to go because I had a history of childhood asthma,” Martinez said. “Working with COVID patients was interesting. There were some times where it was difficult.”

At times Martinez would have to run between rooms to make sure the several patients assigned to her were okay. Some of her patients had to be intubated.

“Speaking with those family members about what’s going on was kind of tough. Many families were not sure what would happen. Those patients can be good one night and then, all of a sudden, deteriorate and go down the next,” Martinez said.

She said her biggest fear was bringing back the virus to her mother and brother. Luckily for Martinez, she never contracted the virus.

Mark Orcutt

Sixty one-year-old Mark Orcutt is a deacon and when he walked out of his parish after a Bible study to find a man shot on the sidewalk he began to wonder if he had medical training, would he have been able to save him.

After that he saw his wife get substandard support from a nurse after surgery. He decided to go to nursing school in 2005 at the age of 45. Now he is a registered nurse at St. Jude.

With 12 years of experience, the pandemic was a new challenge for Orcutt.

“Nobody knew anything,” he said. “ We were doing everything that we thought was necessary and it was changing every day it seemed like the first couple of weeks.”

Orcutt, who is diabetic, was worried about bringing the virus home to his family. He said the pandemic has made him reflect on why he became a nurse.

“When times where people are most vulnerable and you can provide them with a little reassurance and compassion and hopefully make it easier for them, it’s worth doing,” Orcutt said.

“The pandemic didn’t change any of that; it heightened it.”

Peggy Delmastro

Tustin resident Peggy Delmastro from Illinois worked on and off as a nurse practitioner for St. Joseph Hospital in Orange for 25 years. She retired in 2019.

She came out of retirement in January to help her colleagues in the fight against the coronavirus.

“I’ve been a nurse 50 years — this is something none of us have ever seen. This is a 100 year occurrence and it’s really impacted our society globally not just here in the United States but everywhere in the world and it’s an eye opener for me as a nurse,” Delmastro said.

“And I was here for the AIDS epidemic,” she added. “It’s not just in health care, people have lost their jobs, they’ve lost their businesses. We’ve lost family members, We’ve lost dear friends.”

Tustin resident Peggy Delmastro helped vaccinate people at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange and also worked supporting patients with serious illness and their families during the pandemic. Credit: Courtesy of Peggy Delmastro

During the pandemic, Delmastro returned to work on a palliative care team which provides support to patients with serious illness and their families. Once a week she was virtually asking patients what care they would like.

“Would they want to be intubated and put on a breathing machine? Would they want CPR?” Delmastro said. “Do they want to have artificial means to keep them alive? COVID is a very slippery virus; it seems like patients are getting better, but then they don’t.”

It’s different this time around. Patients with the virus were alone when Delmastro spoke to them because their family couldn’t be there. She couldn’t gauge body language virtually — a big part of connecting with patients. 

She was able to find a way nonetheless. Her time working palliative care ended last month with the decline in coronavirus case numbers.

Delmastro was also vaccinating medical workers at the hospital.

“The whole idea of nursing is to help others,” she said. “Not only did I want to help the patients but I really wanted to help the health care workers because they are exhausted.”

“They’ve seen a lot of death.”

Kim Lawrence

Kim Lawrence was born and raised in Santa Ana before embarking on a roughly 40-year career as a nurse at St. Joseph hospital and retiring in December 2019.

Shortly after, the pandemic hit and disrupted her plans to travel, keeping her stuck at home.

Then the phone rang around Christmas with an opportunity to come back to St. Joseph and help vaccinate people.

“I jumped at the chance. I felt like this was a way that I could really contribute and help again,” Lawrence said.

Santa Ana resident Kim Lawernce came out of retirement from nursing to vaccinate people at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Since January, she has helped vaccinate kidney transplant patients who have a high chance of dying if they catch the virus, as well as other health care workers at the hospital.

“I don’t think there’s a health care worker that hasn’t been hit by this either personally or through the people they’ve cared for in their jobs. We’ve got to get a handle on this. We got to get people vaccinated,” Lawrence said.

She added that healthcare workers are very sad and coping with the devastation of the virus.

“They’ve seen unbelievable things that they’ve never had to see in their lifetime,” Lawrence said. “But I’m telling you, they’re really a tough group and they believe in what they’re doing and they’re there to help people and so they just stick it out.”

Molica Ong

Molica Ong, Tustin resident and third year nursing student at UC Irvine, said the first time she had given direct patient care was when she was giving vaccines to people 65 and older at clinics held at her university.

“Just being able to be a small part of the administration of the vaccine process, I thought it was extremely rewarding and meaningful and I’m very proud to have been part of that,” Ong said.

Molica Ong, a third year nursing student at UC Irvine, has helped vaccinate people in Orange County. Credit: Courtesy of Molica Ong

She added that she has worked two shifts at the clinic vaccinating around 50 people in one shift as well as preparing vaccines.

Ong chose to pursue a career in nursing to give more personalized care to patients, as well as being able to provide comfort care to families and the versatility of the field.

“The pandemic has increased my desire to become a nurse,” she said. “I think that nurses being in the front lines is so admirable. I’m so proud to be going into a profession that has done so much good during this pandemic. I have so much respect for nurses. I think they deserve all the recognition in the world for putting their lives on the line to help the greater community.”

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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