More than any other single group, health-care workers bore the brunt of the covid-19 pandemic. In the early days and weeks of the crisis, doctors, nurses and emergency medical technicians were hailed as superheroes — immortalized in graffiti and balcony ovations from New York City to Paris and Madrid.
But as the months and years passed, the astonishing casualties from covid-19 — more than 1 million lives lost in the United States and nearly 7 million globally — led to exhaustion, burnout and trauma, as well as infection and deaths among front-line workers. Workforce shortages and unrelenting stress added to their hardships, even as the public applause for their contributions faded.
More than three years since the pandemic began, many of those workers are still ministering to the sick and dying, and often, putting others’ needs ahead of their own. We profile three of them — a nurse in a Norwalk, Ohio, nursing home, a hospice social worker in New York City and a physician who ran the now-shuttered covid pavilion at one of Italy’s largest hospitals.
Johanna Meneses: ‘I know I will set the benchmark’ on foreign nurses
Text and photography by Rosem Morton
Johanna “Joey” Meneses was dropped into the chaos of Manila’s international airport three months ago, all of her belongings crammed into three suitcases. The 32-year-old registered nurse had been recruited to work in a nursing home in Norwalk, Ohio, a place she had never seen or heard of, for her first foreign assignment.
“It was not as scary as I thought it would be,” she said. Meneses traveled with another Filipino nurse, Jerald Vasquez. They were among hundreds of nurses recruited monthly to this country from the Philippines and elsewhere, in response to shortages in the United States that worsened during the pandemic.
Meneses and Vasquez were greeted at the Cleveland airport by a placement officer from PRS Global, the health-care recruiting firm that handled their papers, and driven to Norwalk, a small city one hour west, where a local group gave them donations to help them set up their apartments.
Meneses says she was told they were the 17th and 18th international nurses among that small city’s cadre of foreign nurses, all of whom are from the Philippines and recruited during the pandemic. She is among more than 150,000 Filipino nurses who have emigrated to the United States since the 1960s. American firms draw heavily from that country because its nursing programs were modeled on this country’s during decades of U.S. occupation that ended in 1946.
Meneses says she feels the pressure of being the first foreign nurse at Twilight Gardens, a skilled nursing facility in Norwalk, where she is the only registered nurse during a night shift that lasts 12 hours and often longer. “I know I set the benchmark on what they will expect from international nurses moving forward,” she says.
She works three night shifts a week, overseeing the licensed practical nurses while caring for at least 16 patients. On some nights, she has to take on additional patients and stay past the end of her shift because of staffing issues bedeviling the nursing home industry.
She takes comfort from the growing Filipino community in Norwalk, where another 23 Filipino nurses are expected to arrive in the coming months. And she says the pandemic has helped her rethink her priorities. “I realized how important it is to do the good things in life and live in the present,” she says.
Suzanne Burge: ‘Hospice … is my calling’
Text and photography by Carolyn Van Houten
Suzanne Burge, a social worker for more than a decade, shifted from telehealth work to in-person hospice care in the pandemic’s first year. “I felt that I had a duty to help people,” says Burge, 36, “especially during that time of uncertainty and apprehension about providing in-home care.”
As a hospice social worker, she says she supporters the emotional and mental journey of dying patients, as well as of their loved ones, who often need help processing their feelings around loss and death.
“At first, wearing a mask seemed like a big barrier to showing care, compassion, sorrow, other emotions,” Burge said. “I’ve learned to adapt and how to smile and convey empathy without touch. Covid has taught me a lot of important nonverbal skills — this includes how to better communicate with people who are hard of hearing and often rely on reading lips.” Often, she says, “it means a lot to just sit next to someone in silence.”
Her job is with MJHS Health System, a large nonprofit that provides home care, hospice and palliative care for adults and children, as well as rehabilitation and nursing care services. During her first year, she says most of her patients lived in Manhattan’s Chinatown. “Sometimes I felt a little anxious being there because I knew the community was a target of hate crimes. Fortunately, I was always safe, and didn’t face anti-Asian bias.”
Now, most of her patients live in Queens and Nassau County. Being with people in such circumstances has helped her grow into the role “in ways I never thought possible,” she says. “No matter what other types of health care jobs I may eventually try, I’ll always return to hospice. It’s my calling.”
Romolo Villani: ‘All of us were afraid’
Text and photography by Giovanni Cipriano
During the pandemic, Romolo Villani directed a covid pavilion equipped with intensive care beds, operating rooms and other services that cared for more than 3,000 patients at Azienda Ospedaliera di Rilievo Nazionale A. Cardarelli in Naples, one of Italy’s largest hospitals.
“The first year was very hard,” said Villani, who has returned to his job as head physician of the hospital’s burn intensive care unit. He and his wife, an anesthesiologist, made arrangements for others to take in their three youngest children should they become seriously ill from covid, or worse.
“All of us were afraid of getting infected, dying or infecting our family members,” says Villani, 61, a father of five. “Many workers decided for months to live away from their families, their children, to try to protect them from infection. Despite this, each of us came to work every day out of a sense of duty and responsibility.”
Over time, he says, chronic staff shortages became a more pressing issue. “We Italians are proud of our health-care system. The universal right to health is enshrined in our constitutional charter. Unfortunately, however, we had to realize the serious organizational shortcomings resulting from years of health-care spending cuts.”
Villani, head physician of the burn intensive care unit of the Cardarelli hospital in Naples, says the deep personal bonds among medical staff and their determination helped them prevail. “I am filled with pride and gratitude to all the colleagues who with dedication, self-sacrifice and stubbornness worked to save lives.” Nevertheless, he understands the burnout and feels sadness that Italy, no less than the United States, is seeing defections of doctors and nurses driven by “a sense of frustration and mistrust about the future.”
Villani, though, will not be among those leaving. “Even today, despite the difficulties and hard work, I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he says.