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Three Clark County ICU nurses isolate themselves to protect loved ones from virus

Three intensive care unit nurses at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center significantly altered their home lives in April as they figured out how to navigate the coronavirus pandemic.

The Columbian interviewed and photographed the nurses over the course of several weeks. Medical personnel across the U.S. have moved into hotels, sent children away, or altered their living situations to protect themselves and others.

These three nurses work at the local hospital that has seen the most coronavirus patients, and in the unit that has the sickest patients. PeaceHealth Southwest has treated more than 50 patients. These nurses have been on the front line of the pandemic response — at least 86 medical workers in Clark County have contracted the virus, although some of those people may have been infected outside their workplaces.

With visitors excluded, the nurses are playing the role of family for patients on their deathbeds. They’ve held phones to ears for final goodbyes. Or brought in tablets for video calls.

They then return to homes separated from their families. Being separated from their support system during a crucial time has proven to be as exhausting as their work life, one nurse said.

These are their stories, told from moments in time:

“I don’t want her to worry”

After a 12-hour shift at PeaceHealth Southwest in late April, Teresa Chamberlain, 39, walked past the “Heroes work here” sign and the giant paper heart sign and the “Stay home, save lives” sign and settled into her car.

She took off her surgical mask, rolled down her window, and prepared her phone for a video call.

“Hi, baba,” Chamberlain exclaimed as soon as her son Elias, 1, appeared on screen.

Her two kids were more than 120 miles away in Madras, Ore., staying with her parents on a half-acre of property.

Chamberlain and her husband, Jeff, a pharmacist at Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center in Portland, moved their kids to Madras in early April. The goal was to buy time as the family figured out what the pandemic meant for them.

In Madras, the kids could be safe, tended to, and possibly shielded from the stress Chamberlain was experiencing.

Yet each day, it seemed more and more like Chamberlain’s “quietly observant” daughter Olyn, 5, was putting the pieces together about what was happening at home.

One day Chamberlain inadvertently left gel on her forehead during a video call. It was leftover protection from constantly wearing an N95 mask, which bruises Chamberlain’s skin.

Olyn noticed the gel, and asked what was on her face. Chamberlain told her “that’s how we stay safe from the germs.” The explanation sufficed, and it was a conversation averted, at least for another day.

“I don’t want her to worry about me,” Chamberlain said, so she and her husband answered their kid’s questions in half-truths. The parents said a germ caused their move to Madras. It was the same germ that closed schools. And the same germ that closed ski slopes that Olyn and her dad like to frequent.

“I want the germ to go away,” Olyn would say.

Each call was an opportunity to hear the kids describe gardening with their grandparents, or talk about how they played with the grandparents’ new ducks. Sometimes, life in Madras sounded so fun that it made Chamberlain joke her kids didn’t miss her.

The truth was that her kids did miss her, and she missed them, too. When the pandemic struck and work turned hectic, the family nanny stepped aside temporarily, and Chamberlain needed the reprieve from parenting. Now all she wanted was to hug and kiss her kids, and hear her “chatterbox” daughter in their Portland home.

Things were so lonely and quiet that Chamberlain and her husband once found themselves at home listening to the TV, radio and Pandora at the same time.

Maybe we are trying to drown out why they aren’t here, the couple thought.

After finishing up a conversation with Elias, Olyn came on the phone. The mother and daughter talked about how Olyn rode her scooter that day, but the conversation quickly took a serious turn to the germ.

Chamberlain tried to comfort her daughter.

“Everyone has done such a good job staying away from each other,” Chamberlain told Olyn. “The germs are starting to disappear. You have done such a good job, Olyn.”

Maybe a return home could happen soon. Even Chamberlain admitted she could not live like this for a year.

Just as Chamberlain predicted, her daughter was putting the pieces together. All the way down in Madras, Olyn sensed the stakes.

“I hope you don’t die from the germ because I will miss you,” Olyn said on their call.

“I have all my stuff on,” Chamberlain said of protective gear to reassure Olyn. “Even when I’m not by you, I’m in your heart.”

Prayers through the door

The letters slid under the doorway into Tiona Gudishvili’s room almost daily.

“I love you, Mom.”

“I miss you, Mom.”

“God bless you.”

“Happy Easter.”

For much of April, Gudishvili, 30, sequestered herself in a side room with outside access at the home she shares with her parents.

It kept her separated from her 7-year-old daughter, Melanie Zaytsev, and her parents. Gudishvili made the decision because her father is in a higher-risk age group, and her mother has a compromised immune system.

During that time, the mother and daughter communicated with each other through a closed doorway. They talked through the door. They prayed through the door. And her daughter slid letters under the door that contained drawings and words of encouragement.

An Easter card depicted an egg, a cross and sunshine. Some letters were Melanie’s to-do list for the day. She drew a toothbrush because she was going to brush her teeth. A book for reading. Vegetables for gardening. A trampoline for playtime. One had stick figures of Gudishvili and her daughter holding hands, able to touch again.

Gudishvili video-called Melanie, who would explain what the cards meant. On one call she asked Gudishvili about treating coronavirus patients.

“She’s very concerned,” Gudishvili said. “I’m her only parent. She asked me ‘Have people died from it?’ And ‘How do you get it?’ ”

Gudishvili reassured Melanie. She said she’s not sick. That she washes her hands, and does not touch her face. Gudishvili sent her daughter a picture of herself dressed in personal protective equipment.

Even with proper precautions, work was stressful. Gudishvili saw coronavirus patients from almost all age ranges. “There’s not really a rhyme or reason,” she said.

She once held a dying patient’s hand with her gloves on, and told the patient her family called to say they loved her.

“We can’t have their families next to them,” Gudishvili said. “It’s not the same. I’m not her family. It’s hard watching people die alone. You just try to squish that aside in the moment and keep going.”

When Gudishvili returned home from work, the regular stress relievers were gone. She couldn’t snuggle with her daughter, who previously lived in the same room as her. She’d go outside, and waved to Melanie through a window. Other times, she’d wave from her car as she drove in for another ICU shift.

Gudishvili, her daughter, and her mother all have plans for a trip, whenever those kind of things are safe again. They’re picturing white sand, blue waters and no boys allowed, except for maybe Melanie’s favorite uncle.

“Right now, it’s nothing like where she’s by my side, being my sidekick,” Gudishvili said.

Seeds for the future

As Christina Kragness, 44, arrived at her house one day in late April, her son Cody, 3, sprinted toward her.

Kragness held both arms out, palms up, and started to back away.

“You’ve got to stay back, remember,” Kragness said.

That reminder was even more important than usual, as Kragness was about 45 minutes away from being tested for COVID-19. A couple of days earlier, she was exposed to the virus at work. Kragness decided to keep her weekly visit with Cody and her oldest son Wyatt, 8, because the boys are creatures of habit. The separation was taking its toll on the family.

Kragness was already a few weeks into isolating herself from her two sons, and her husband Brian — who has health conditions that make him more susceptible to complications from the virus.

She moved into the family’s recreation vehicle. The Clark County Fairgrounds RV Park & Storage offered a free stay, given the circumstances. A potted flower, a camping chair and a stack of “fluff” books kept her company. But once a week, Kragness allowed herself an outdoor family visit.

Initially, Kragness tried to stay home from work, but she quickly felt the need to return. “A moral responsibility to help,” is how Kragness termed her decision.

After she returned to work, she decided to isolate herself. She vowed to live in a separate room, taking proper sanitary precautions. It lasted one day. Her kids could not stand to see her without getting a hug.

Her youngest son does not completely understand why he can’t crawl into Mom’s lap and hug her. During one visit, her oldest son asked her to leave because seeing her, without being able to touch, was too painful. She cried for hours afterward.

Her husband took on the daily duties of raising their kids. He home-schooled Wyatt, and the two bonded over a shared affection for computer coding. Kragness checked in daily with video calls, but still worried about her absence, and what it meant for the family’s mental health.

Kragness found herself sleeping 19 hours on her days off — partially due to a night-shift schedule, partially due to depression.

“It’s just so emotionally draining to say goodbye again and again,” Kragness said.

On that April day, before Kragness went to get tested for coronavirus, she kicked around the soccer ball with her kids, and checked out a garden her family was making as a thank you to her.

They’d put up a fence, and constructed six plant beds. Kragness looked over seed packages for peas, onions, carrots, cucumbers and tomatoes.

“Those look amazing,” Kragness said of the plant beds. “We’re going to have a huge garden this year.”

The return home

After receiving negative COVID-19 test results, Kragness finished two weeks of self-isolation and returned home May 2.

She immediately hugged her family. Kragness said she held Cody for 10 minutes and cried. For now, she’s taking a break from work to be with her family. The plan is to return to work in the future.

The Gudishvili and Chamberlain families have also been reunited. All three nurses say they feel more comfortable being with their loved ones, as fewer patients are hospitalized locally for the virus, and there’s more knowledge around COVID-19.

Chamberlain reunited with her kids outside Government Camp, Ore., last Monday. Her son hugged his dad, Jeff, and “melted into him.” Chamberlain’s mom was in the military, and Chamberlain compared the moment with seeing her mom when she returned from serving in Operation Desert Storm.

Gudishvili said her daughter has been running into her room at night to sleep with her.

Since Kragness was reunited, the family has been eating together, and taking plenty of walks. They’ve watched “The Willoughbys” and “Race to Witch Mountain.” The kids haven’t ever been more than an arm’s reach away, Kragness said. Sometimes, they’re much closer than that.

“I’m like a human jungle gym,” Kragness joked.

Wyatt and Cody have been sleeping in their parent’s room. Cody takes a spot between Kragness and her husband. Wyatt generally gets the floor.

During a phone interview Monday, Kragness excused herself for a moment, saying she needed to corral her kids, who were audible in the background. She noted it’s a good problem to have.

“This has made me feel so thankful for everything,” Kragness said. “It’s given me new perspective.”


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