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Heartbreak and hard work: Banner Health nurse details life in the COVID ICU

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Posted at 1:30 PM, Jan 21, 2021

PHOENIX — Pulling into work for an overnight shift in the ICU, Banner Health nurse Melody Nungaray-Ortiz notices the lights of the hospital, takes a couple of breaths, and tries to calm her anxiety.

"You put your mask on, adjust everything, and walk-in," Nungaray-Ortiz said. "We just do it over and over again."

Nungaray-Ortiz is a cardiovascular ICU nurse at Banner-University Medical Center Phoenix.

"Some days...we feel strong, and we get good patient outcomes and we feel good about what we do," she said. "Other days, it's tough."

In what has become the norm, she described busy shifts, with doctors and nurses tending to continuous emergencies that require their attention.

"It's very chaotic," she said. "As soon as you start to tend to a situation, to try and get your bearings with that, quickly another emergency arises and it pulls that intensivist in another direction, those nurses in another direction. It's literally one after another after another after another."

Nungaray-Ortiz said many patients are on ECMO where she is stationed and issues on other floors can pull valuable resources.

"In a matter of a few minutes, we had about two codes...we had higher levels of care," she said.

She told ABC15 her hospital is very busy during this COVID-19 surge. According to the state's coronavirus dashboard, there are 4,580 COVID-19 inpatients at Arizona hospitals, among the highest levels of the pandemic.

"For us that means we have our overflow floor full, we have an emergency other floor full," she said.

Given the uptick of patients, Nungaray-Ortiz told ABC15 allocating nurses in a judicious manner is of utmost importance. While she hopes for good patient outcomes, she is all too familiar with those who don't survive, and who's families say goodbye to their loved one over a video call.

"Little kids are saying goodbye to their dad, wives are singing their favorite song to their husband," she said. "These things are happening."

According to the state's coronavirus dashboard, 11,772 people have died in Arizona from COVID-19.

"As they're saying their last goodbyes, we are holding their hands, we're trying to make them feel reassured, being that person there," Nungaray-Ortiz said. "They don't get to see their daughter or their son for the last time but at least they get to feel some sort of human warmth in that moment."

She told ABC15 they are doing their best, but noted how much the pandemic has changed their jobs and careers.

"To think back, it's hard, and you'd rather just not, because if you think back it hurts," she said, pausing for roughly 20 seconds. "It's fine."

A nurse for 12 years, Nungaray-Ortiz told ABC15 she really likes the job.

"You feel a level of importance to what you do," she said. "You feel your impact."

That brings us back to how Nungaray-Ortiz gears up for yet another shift during the pandemic in the ICU, sitting in her car, the ambulance lights off in the distance, illuminating the darkness of night.

"To me, it's sitting there and trying to process what I'm going to go into," she said. "Hoping the night will go as smoothly as possible."