COVID-19 Warriors: Forefront of True Grit and Resilience
Marifel (Max) Axalan, BSN, RN, CNN, Nurse Clinician – NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center

As I sat down and contemplated my unit’s experience during the pandemic, I was suddenly overwhelmed with emotions. My throat was tight, my eyes were blurry, and the tears just kept falling. “I survived COVID-19! My teammates survived COVID-19!” I could hear my brain screaming over and over, “This is victory!” Or is it?

It was March 16 when N2/N8 Hemodialysis and Apheresis nurses were finally called into action: Dialyze COVID-19-positive patients. Our patients need us. We were physically at our patients’ bedside for over four hours straight from beginning to end of dialysis treatments. We endured the profuse sweating under our PPE (like having continuous “hot flashes”). We didn’t dare leave our patients’ side for bathroom breaks so we held the urge until the treatments were done. In those fearful moments, we knew we were extremely exposed and vulnerable to this unknown enemy. But we were all determined to fight it with all our might. We had to win this battle for our patients, for our families, and for each other. Our team became more cohesive than ever. We shared each other’s strategies on how best to protect ourselves. We wore impermeable blue isolation gowns, we used face shields, N95 masks, surgical masks, shoe covers, bonnets, anything available—we had them on. Endless hand-washing and disinfecting. Without a doubt, our infection control practices were above and beyond! Our staff bathroom was even outfitted with a shower we could use at the end of our shifts. It felt like we washed away some of the fears at bringing the enemy home to our loved ones. But in that tiny corner of our hearts, the dread and uncertainty lingered.

We were so thankful to have had the immense support of our empowered department and NewYork-Presbyterian leaders; the dedication demonstrated by our equally committed partners (Medical Director, Nephrology Team, and Hemodialysis Technicians); and lastly our hardworking NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell colleagues, associates, and support staff. Indeed, our mission was made possible by the unsurpassed generosity of our institution to provide us the supplies and equipment we desperately needed while other institutions were found lacking. Not to mention the bountiful nourishment, free accommodations and transportation, laundered scrubs, financial and mental health support, and so much more. Indeed, all these provisions and resources kept us going. Somehow, the heavy burden became bearable. We were beyond grateful.

The trials and tribulations came in droves. Our patients were acutely sick and we never knew when the next time we would see them would be. Our goodbyes seemed more frequent. But there was one goodbye we never imagined saying…to one of our own. Our hearts were broken. Our resilience wavered, and our spirit—almost defeated. She was a fearless warrior. An extraordinary nurse who possessed unrivaled grit and valor. We missed her dearly and found comfort amongst each other. Emotional support poured in even from strangers.

In the midst of all this unimaginable devastation and anguish, our faith was our lifeline. It held us steadfast. Prayers were our constant companion and ally, our infinite source of strength. We filled our minds with positive thoughts to rebuild our spiritual defenses. Our heart-to-heart virtual or phone conversations with families and friends and near others strengthened our grip on our daily emotional struggles. Our nutritious dietary intake and the fanatical regimen of doses of vitamin C, prebiotics, probiotics, and other immune-boosting supplements kept our physical defenses almost impenetrable.

Looking back, the whole experience seemed surreal. And so here we are—heart in pieces, bruised faces, battered spirits, but still standing strong and hopeful. Our Hemodialysis/Apheresis Unit even won 2020 Weill Cornell’s much coveted Structural Empowerment Award. Truly, we are all in this together. Without a doubt, this is victory.