The labor and delivery unit in a Las Vegas hospital where Yarleny Roa-Dugan works as a nurse is a lot quieter these days. No more joyous family gatherings celebrating the debut of a new life.
Instead, pregnant women shuffle in with one person by their side — maybe a husband, boyfriend, mother or friend. Someone to hold their hand, if they’re lucky. Some women arrive solo, their partner sidelined at home to care for other children.
“We control the environment as much as possible because we are trying to take care of these newborn babies that have no immune system yet,” she said.
This is the reality of life inside hospitals amid COVID-19. Medical workers like Roa-Dugan trudge in and out each shift, managing strict safety protocols and caring for anxious patients, always aware the virus could be lurking in the same room. Some of her patients or their family members have tested positive for the virus.
Every possible brush with the new pathogen fills her mind with questions. She fears bringing home the virus to her husband, 14-year-old son or 3-year-old daughter, who has severe allergies and asthma.
“What should I do when I get home,” she found herself wondering, especially at the beginning of the pandemic. “Should I quarantine? Or should I go somewhere else? Because I think I just was exposed to COVID.”
Roa-Dugan decided to operate as if the virus was sticking to her. She’d peel off her hospital clothes in the garage, bag everything up and make a beeline for the shower — never stopping to say hello to family until she emerged clean and disinfected.
Her husband, meanwhile, took care of shopping and errands. Roa-Dugan stayed home, aside from her three work shifts each week.
“I felt that I was putting the community at risk if I went out and I wasn't sure if I had COVID or not,” she said. “So I stayed in. I quarantined myself, and that’s what most of my coworkers did as well.”
Nearly ten months into the pandemic, Roa-Dugan keeps her excursions limited. If she does leave the house, it’s never without a face mask and proper social distancing. She also has taken three COVID-19 tests, with a negative result each time. Her immediate family has stayed healthy for the time being.
Still, the situation frustrates her. From a health care standpoint, she said the pandemic has exposed workforce issues that were bubbling under the surface before COVID-19 patients occupied hospital beds. There never seems to be enough nurses or respiratory therapists, she said.
“They’re expecting us to do more with less every year,” said Roa-Dugan, an SEIU Local 1107 member who didn’t want to identify the hospital where she works. “And it’s been getting worse and worse.”
It’s enough to make some health care workers flee or retire. But not Roa-Dugan. If anything, she said it strengthens her resolve to help enact change. Roa-Dugan moved to Las Vegas from Colombia as a 15-year-old with dreams of attending medical school. But she opted for nursing after realizing it could land her in the workforce sooner. She does not regret the decision.
It boils down to patient interaction.
“I love being on the floor and actually in contact with the patients as much as I do,” she said.
But as Roa-Dugan sees the toll the virus is taking on colleagues, patients and their loved ones, she can’t help but be dismayed by some people’s behavior. They’re not thinking about the bigger picture, she said. Her plea for fellow community members this holiday season:
“We should stop being so individualistic and just thinking of what would be good for me, but maybe think of what’s best for everyone,” she said.
The virus doesn’t take a holiday. Neither will Roa-Dugan.
She works Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.