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By Michele Robertson

Tereasa Ornelas, RN, BSN, who works as a school nurse in Carlsbad, felt the need to help with the COVID-19 pandemic however she could. She wound up assistin

g patients in the northwestern part of the state, where the need was greatest.

“I felt very strongly about going, because when school closed, I felt like here I was an RN and I wasn't out helping battle this pandemic with other healthcare workers,” she said. “I felt guilty. I'd watch the news and see how dire the need for nurse's was. There were nurses working without proper PPE and being exposed to COVID, nurses working nonstop and nurses dying. I had the luxury of a school nurse job and being home, it didn't seem fair that I was home and many of them couldn't be with their families,”

Originally Ornelas had signed up with New York Governor Cumo’s COVID Initiative to go to New York. The caveat was they needed nurses there right away, and Ornelas was still working with the schools here. Later in May, the NM State Board of Nursing put out an urgent call asking nurses to sign up for the NM Medical Reserve Corp. Ornelas signed up right away.

“I got a call later that afternoon from a nurse with the NM Dept. of Health asking when I could go. They actually wanted me to leave Carlsbad that day, the need was that great. I told them I could leave the afternoon of May 22. They said I would be working in medical shelters in Farmington and Aztec. I arrived on May 22 and was there until June 4th,” shared Ornelas.

“Although I never doubted the number of cases or severity of the illness that I was hearing about on the news, I was shocked to learn how many medical shelters had been set up in NM. I had no idea. NM Dept. of Health was utilizing motels to put patients in that were COVID positive that were sick, but not sick enough to be in the hospital yet, but needed to be monitored by healthcare professionals. It was truly a learning experience,” she said.

Patient contact was minimum while Ornelas was working at the medical shelter. Patients would step out of their hotel rooms for assessments and vital signs. Ornelas always had proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and never felt unsafe or unprotected. Patients were also required to wear a mask during visits from healthcare professionals, and they could not leave their rooms unless they were being discharged or transported by emergency medical services (EMS) for higher level care.

Upon returning home to Carlsbad, Ornelas did not have to quarantine as she followed all Center for Disease Control (CDC) protocol while working with COVID patients. She had one swab test, which was negative and daily temperature screenings.

“These people had to quarantine for 14 days in their hotel room. I cannot imagine being stuck in a hotel room for 14 days and the only time you can open the door is when I came around to do their assessments. They can't see their families. They are just stuck in this hotel room watching TV. I thought about the emotional aspects of being in that situation and the long-term repercussions of that. Many were stressed, scared and I am sure the isolation only added to that,” Ornelas relayed.

She also had the opportunity to attend meetings with health officials from Farmington, Aztec, San Juan County, and other team members from the NM Department of Health. All of them were trying to problem solve how to protect their communities and ensure that those who were exposed or had active illness got the care they needed.

“Seeing it up front and in person definitely changed me. I was working in San Juan County which has the second highest number of cases in NM, with McKinley County in first which is right next door. At that time Gallup, in McKinley County had three medical shelters in place. It does not discriminate. I had patients 80 plus years old to less than 10 years old, first responders to the homeless,” said Ornelas. “The illness is very real, if only people who don't believe the severity of the virus could have seen what I saw I think some might take this more seriously. I did note one commonality with all my patients. The severity of the illness varied in all my patients, but all of them reported that they had lost their sense of taste and smell.”

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