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Keeping the faith on the front lines

Not all superheroes wear capes, some wear scrubs, as they say.

Pediatric ICU nurse Danielle Schiavone said she doesn’t feel like a hero. “But having someone say that about you makes you really think about what you’re doing,” she admitted.

Danielle hadn’t been on the job six months when COVID-19 began. She described the pandemic as a learning experience and has relied on her faith to keep going.

The children’s intensive care unit at Hackensack University Medical Center, where Danielle works, was transformed amidst the outbreak. “We turned into a COVID ICU, not only for children but adults as well to decompress the adult ICUs,” Danielle explained. “In the very beginning, we were only taking adults without COVID, but once the virus completely flooded the hospital, we couldn’t make that split anymore.”

Being a new nurse—she graduated from Caldwell University in May 2019—she described not having experience with adults. “It was a change, even how you interact with them,” she said. “I think COVID in general made it a scary experience.”

While caring for both adults and children with the virus during 13-hours shifts, Danielle said her biggest fear was bringing it home. She lives with her parents. Her father is a retired law enforcement officer. Her mother is a former nurse who is now paralyzed.

“I’m fortunate that both my parents understood that I couldn’t stay home during this,” said Danielle.

While she admitted feeling guilty, she believes her purpose is to be a nurse. “Part of serving this purpose is working through this pandemic. If I tell myself this is what I’m meant to be doing and helping people through this time, it justified how hard I had to work to not expose my family and the measures I took to protect them,” Danielle explained.

She said she is thankful for her coworkers, who collected cleaning supplies for her, and the hospital for providing scrubs. That means she has been able to go to work in her own clothes and change there. “So when I went home, my clothes were less contaminated, meaning a lesser chance of spreading the virus, but I also had to worry about my hair and skin,” she explained.

The hospital also did a great job rationing, according to Danielle. “We had enough gowns and gloves. We did reuse N-95s covered with a surgical mask. We didn’t want to run out,” she said. “I’m lucky that, even though reusing, we had exactly what we needed.”

However, Danielle admitted there has been another challenge of the pandemic. “I had people in my life not taking the precautions seriously. They didn’t think it was as big a deal as the media says. I cried a lot,” she disclosed. “I wish I was able to believe that. I wish I didn’t believe this was a real thing. If you are able to be that unaware of the situation, it means you didn’t lose anyone or wasn’t working in the midst of it. I’m almost jealous of them—they weren’t in a situation where they had to know.”

Praying helped, she said. It has always been important to Danielle, and it became even more so during the outbreak. She said she spends her long commute from central New Jersey praying for others.

“On a normal day before I went to work, I would always pray in general—for myself, coworkers, patients—that everyone has the strength to get through what they’re going through—spiritually, mentally, physically, that they are able to overcome. On the way home, something similar. I did that before COVID,” she said. “Since COVID, that meant a lot more loss. I started praying more for my family.”

Danielle said she doesn’t just pray while in the car, but sometimes while on the job. “If I hear someone praying or how they want someone to pray for their child, I’m not going to hesitate to bring up my own faith,” she stated.

The nurse said the “unbelievable” support has also helped her get through these last few months. “We had food donations, PPE donations. We had people with 3D printers printing face masks and ‘ear savers’ to hook the masks onto,” Danielle said, explaining how the ear savers go behind your head to give your ears a break, which start to hurt after a while. “We had a lot of children who drew us pictures and some moms, friends of friends and former patients who drew us pictures or thank you notes and we hung them around the unit.”

With the number of hospitalizations continuing to decrease, there are no longer any adults in the children’s ICU, but COVID-19 remains a daily reality for Danielle. And the hospital is preparing for a possible second wave. Danielle said the nurse in her hopes people continue to take precautions by wearing face masks and washing their hands more.

“Personally, I hope that everyone a) doesn’t take for granted who they have in their life and the health they have; and b) are more gracious toward others. You don’t know if the person next to you lost someone to COVID. When out and about and meeting new people, don’t assume this was just fine for them,” she explained.

As we move forward and eventually past this pandemic, Danielle said it’s important to believe in something more than medicine. “Science is limited and there’s only so much medical professions can tackle; the rest we leave up to faith.”