Veronica Cerritos returns from hospital stint
treating COVID-19 patients in NJ



“I would do this all over again if there is a need”





Veronica Cerritos (left) of KCK was among the hundreds of registered nurses saving lives of COVID–19 patients at Christ Hospital in Jersey City. “When I got there, it looked like a war zone. There were nurses taking care of four or five critically ill patients at the same time, when they should have just been taking care of two (Intensive Care Unit) patients.”



BY JOE ARCE AND COREY CRABLE

IN-DEPTH REPORT


Local resident and nurse Veronica Cerritos has seen the tragedy that COVID-19 can wreak on a community and its individuals. But she’s seen stories of inspiration and of healing, too.


Cerritos, who recently returned to Kansas City after having traveled to Jersey City, NJ, to assist nursing staff who were treating COVID patients, came home to a place where the numbers of infected are steadily growing by the day. As of the last week of June, the entire state of Missouri reported more than 18,000 cases since the start of the outbreak (nearly 1,000 of those resulted in death), while Kansas has reported nearly 13,000, with 261 deaths. In Missouri, Wyandotte County alone has accounted for more than 10 percent of positive COVID cases.


Now that she’s returned home, Cerritos, 30, says she’s had opportunity to reflect on her time serving the most dire of COVID cases in Jersey City – what she’s felt, what she’s learned, and what she hopes for the future.


Cerritos, who previously worked at St. Luke’s Hospital, had to leave her job in order to go to the other side of the country and help. Making the trek wasn’t a decision she took lightly. It would mean leaving her husband and going into unfamiliar – and dangerous – territory.


“Before I left, I thought about whether I should go or not,” Cerritos recalls. “Should I make a will? What happens if I get sick? All these different thoughts came into my head.”


Ultimately, and after much prayer and reflection, Cerritos says, she decided she had to answer the call for help.


“I’d definitely do it again,” she says. “I felt pulled and compelled to go there and help. … I wanted to go there because I wanted to go where help was needed, and there wasn’t a lot of patients here in the city at the time. In my mind, I thought, ‘Well, if patients are dying because it’s a terrible virus, and if there isn’t enough staff to care for these patients, I needed to help them up there.’”


Cerritos left for the East Coast in mid-April and was stationed at Christ Hospital in Jersey City. She made sure to bring extra facial masks, as she didn’t know whether there was a shortage at the hospital.


Nothing, however, could prepare her for what she saw and experienced.


“When I got there, it looked like a war zone. People were just kind of running back and forth and figuring out which patient to see first, because they were all going downhill at the same time,” Cerritos says. “There were nurses taking care of four or five critically ill patients at the same time, when they should have just been taking care of two (Intensive Care Unit) patients.”


Like the other nurses, Cerritos was tasked with monitoring the vital signs of her patients, supplying sedatives and blood pressure medicine, relaying a patient’s status and needs to an attending physician, turning patients in their beds in order to avoid the development of bed sores, and keeping the patient clean in general.


At the beginning of the outbreak, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s announcement of a shortage of ventilators in New York City dominated network news cycles. Cerritos says that at her hospital, so close to the epicenter of the COVID outbreak in the U.S., that wasn’t a problem.


“As far as trying to figure out who got a ventilator, we were fortunate because we had plenty of them,” she says. “There were donations of ventilators that came from different places.”


And, also like any other nurse, Cerritos says that as she worked with certain patients, she got to know them and their stories, and developed a closeness with them. Sometimes, she says, those patients’ COVID stories ended happily.


“When I was getting close to leaving, there were patient gatherings when it was time to go home,” Cerritos recalls. “Everyone would get together and clap for them and cheer them on because they got to go home. That was a rewarding part. A lot of people were dying, but there were a lot more patients who were able to go home.”


But there were many, many others who weren’t as fortunate. Often, it came down to an agonizing decision – which patients will be able to be saved, and which will die?


“One of the cases I had hit me so hard in the first week. Actually being there, it was hard being there and feeling that. It was ugly,” Cerritos says. “There was an instance where a fellow nurse let me know that a patient I had tried so hard to get better and find the motivation to keep living had died. That was the hardest case I had, when that patient died. She was my age. I just broke down and cried. I had to yell, and I was so frustrated. I was sorry I couldn’t be there for her and fight more for her.”


In those moments when her work seemed to overwhelm her, Cerritos says she did her best to allow herself to feel grief and to process it in healthy ways.


“The first couple of weeks were hardest, and I found myself really sad being in my hotel room. I couldn’t go anywhere,” Cerritos says. “I wanted to let it out, but I also didn’t want to talk to anybody, because I didn’t know how to express it, and no one else could relate to what I was going through. I tried figuring out what I could do so I wouldn’t fall into depression. I did deep breathing exercises, yoga, I went down to the bay by the hotel. I took a notebook and started writing everything down. Being outside and listening to inspirational, uplifting music was big, and prayer was big as well.”


And then there were the friends she made along the way – the other nurses and hospital staff, a fraternity of the only other people around Cerritos who knew what she was feeling.


“We always tried to have good times, going out and seeing the city,” Cerritos says, referring to New York City, which, at any other time, would be teeming with life. “Nobody was in New York City. I always imagined New York City had a whole lot of people. It was weird to go to the city and see the streets to empty. But being able to share those experiences with complete strangers from Georgia, Kentucky, Philadelphia, it was really nice, because no one else will understand what we saw or went through.”


Cerritos says her Hispanic heritage helped her while working at Christ Hospital, too, since she was called upon to act as a translator for COVID patients who spoke little to no English.


“I did have several patients where nurses asked me to help interpret. It’s scary for someone in the hospital who cannot speak the language and has no idea what is going on. I tried to help and ease their anxiety,” Cerritos says. “I had one patient Facetime with a family member, and I helped explain to them what was going on, and there were hard conversations. I’m grateful and thankful to be able to help interpret for them.”


She also helped many of them manage a smile throughout days of pain and uncertainty – well, with the power of music at her disposal.


“One of my patients loved listening to Mariachi, so I pulled out my phone and sat next to that patient, and I’ll never forget the look on his face as he listened to that music,” she recalls. “When I left, he was close to being discharged.”


Now that Cerritos herself is finally home in Wyandotte County, she says that, even after reflection on the good, the bad, and the ugly of her experience, she would go back to Christ Hospital if necessary.


“I would do this all over again if there is a need,” she says, “but my husband has told me, ‘No more, no more!’”


Cerritos says she is concerned by some of what she does – and doesn’t see – from others as the number of COVID cases climbs.


“I’m concerned about the numbers (here), and when I go to the store, maybe 30 percent of people have masks on. In Jersey, everyone had one on,” she says. “It makes me question myself. Should I wear one or not? Whenever I go to the store, I make sure to have a mask on. My concern is for the places that have not been hard hit. They’re going to be hit hard on the second wave. Kansas City might be the new epicenter of coronavirus cases. People don’t generally pay attention to things until they see it with their own eyes.”


That concern and caring for others is just like Veronica, Cerritos’ mother says.


“I have no words to express … the depth of the internal, spiritual love that I have for my daughter Veronica Cerritos and the will of faith that she has within,” her mother wrote in a column published in Kansas City Hispanic News in early June, before Veronica returned safely home. She urged all reading to pray for her daughter’s safe return.


Cerritos says that in order to survive the COVID pandemic, everyone must practice caution, compassion, and patience.


“I would hope my story can help hit home for some people and help them understand that this is a virus we need to care about,” she says. “We need to be careful about what we do and be considerate of each other and wear masks. You have to think about the people around you. You never know what’s going to happen. Take each day at a time, be patient, and we’ll get through this.”