Our landline rang a few minutes past 7 p.m. on April 11th. My older brother picked up the phone and put it on speaker.
“Benedict, tell Dad I’m working with COVID patients tonight,” said my mother, Nenita Guzman.
My mother, a nurse, was in the middle of putting on her makeshift PPE attire at Bergen New Bridge Medical Center. In lieu of protective boots, she strapped disposable blood pressure cuffs to her legs with rubber bands, and put on two surgical masks over her N95.
“It’s not because they don’t want to supply us [with PPE kits]. But due to the shortage, they are prioritizing the COVID staff,” my mother, who is 63, later shared with me. “We try to be innovative to protect ourselves.”
My father Willy was nowhere near the phone — but as soon as he heard her voice, he sprinted up the basement steps, rushed past the kitchen and into the dining room where my brother stood.
“Lovey, hello?” he said. But my mother had already hung up to tend to another patient.
Bergen County — which has over 16,800 coronavirus cases— has the highest number of cases in New Jersey. Bergen New Bridge Medical Center is one of the only two available COVID-19 testing sites in the county.
My father had dropped my mom off at the hospital parking lot that Saturday night near the first responder testing tent. He knew she could be assigned to any department that needed staffing.
My mom normally treats people addicted to drugs, and since the virus outbreak, she also attends to medical-surgical patients. This was her first day treating coronavirus victims.
“I must be honest, I was scared and tearful,” she said, recalling the moment she was told to aid people with COVID-19. “I wanted to walk away, but I tried to stay composed. What I was considering was the safety of my family.”
I was sitting in my room when I heard my mother sharing the news – mixed feelings of admiration and concern came over me. I am a proud daughter of a fearless healthcare worker, but I couldn’t help but think of my parents and their health, who are both at the cusp of a vulnerable age bracket.
The 1,070-bed hospital has turned its gym into a 30-bed treatment center. They also offer COVID-19 saliva and antibody testing[MG6] , and plan to provide an additional 100 beds for subacute virus-stricken patients, medical-surgical patients and medical detox patients.
My mom said the air in her new unit is different than other areas of the medical center.
“You could immediately feel it. The patients are all isolated,” she said. “They’re restless, confused…and gasping for each breath…As I aided them, I also tried to minimize my contact, but you can’t help but get close to them. You really have to be watchful.”
While my mother monitored the IV lines and oxygen levels of her six patients that night, my father grabbed his phone, a pillow and his rosary and settled into the guest room to socially distance from his wife of 33 years.
“I know it’s her responsibility as a nurse,” said my father, who is 66 and a retired doctor. “But as much as possible I wish your mom wouldn’t work there.”
Margaret Guzman is an NYU undergraduate journalism student.