Our healthcare System was Rattled about two months ago as patients suffering from COVID-19 began trickling in, but nurses across the country, including those in Houston and with Houston roots, didn't miss a beat. We've profiled five nurses who've been working throughout this pandemic. Those we spoke with talked about changing protocol and unexpected situations, but also of hope and the fact that through it all, they've seen no other choice but to persevere through some of the most challenging times these healthcare professionals have ever witnessed.
Photographer Arturo Olmos and writers Timothy Malcolm and Emma Schkloven checked in with a few of these locally-based and native Houston nurses to have them recount what their lives have been like during the pandemic, and how they have coped with the demands, stress, and joys of caring for patients in the face of this devastating illness.
Rotating ER nurse practitioner
While spending two months in a New York City hospital recovering from an accident, Johnna Cacace, then age 7, told her mother she was going to be a nurse when she grew up. So, it’s no wonder she spent 20 years checking vitals, inserting IV lines, and stitching up wounds as a hospital nurse, before going back to school at 52 to become a nurse practitioner—a change that she says will let her keep working into her 70s.
These days, Cacace, who moved to Houston in the 1980s, splits her time between emergency rooms in League City, Pasadena, and Texas City.
“As a nurse practitioner, I'm always a nurse,” she says. “It's just the foundation of everything, and you still kind of tend to lean into it.”
She’s been relying on her experience even more during the coronavirus epidemic. The ICU, CCU, and entire third floor at one of her jobs, HCA Houston Healthcare Mainland, was filled with COVID-positive patients when she was there in March. “It’s the only time in my nursing career where it was actually scary,” she says. “There was a six-week period I didn’t see my granddaughter or my daughters. Thank God for FaceTime.” —Emma Schkloven
Lauren Taylor Janousek
Cardiac catheterization lab nurse, Clear Lake
Lauren Taylor Janousek, originally from the Deer Park area, received her nursing degree only one year ago, starting her career last August. Whatever she expected a normal first year to be was upended seven months later with COVID-19 arriving in the Houston area. Since she works in an area that sees a majority of elective procedures, like some angioplasties and heart ultrasounds, her regular work was shelved in late March, and she was asked to offer assistance at other parts of the hospital, like the lobby.
“When physicians entered the hospital I’d take their temperature. I would do two or three days a week of literally just checking people in,” Taylor Janousek says. “But I was kept out of COVID treatment. I was fortunate enough to be removed from the danger.”
On days she helped with screenings, she worked from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., then would go home to sleep, clean, watch Netflix and sleep again, then get up for a normal 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. shift in her lab. The result: “The whole month of April I was like, ‘I don’t even know what day it is.’” —Timothy Malcolm
Finding himself unhappy with his major in business, Julian Campos switched to nursing after a heart to heart with his mother, Johnna Cacace. “My mother is a nurse, and she suggested that I fit the personality,” he says. “I guess she saw I was her more-compassionate kid.”
He worked few years at a hospital in Clear Lake and at MD Anderson before leaving his native Houston to fulfill his lifelong dream of touring the country as a travel nurse. His most recent contract took him to rural New Mexico, near Santa Fe, where he's worked in an emergency room for the past seven months. COVID-19 made the rapid pace of ER life even more stressful—rules and protocol changed daily as Campos’s floor was split into sections to separate patients with respiratory symptoms from trauma victims.
The most difficult part has been the distance between him and family members, many of whom also work in medicine, but he’s taken comfort in Xochitl, his four-year-old Australian shepherd mix. “I definitely could not travel without her.” —ES
Cardiovascular ICU nurse, Houston Medical Center
Undoubtedly, being around COVID-19 is scary, but for Cavonte Jones, who grew up in Louisiana and as a kid cared for his sick grandmother by cooking ramen, both a lifelong love of nursing and his training put him in a position to succeed. He has worked several times in his hospital’s COVID-19 units, operating ventilators and life support machines; administering antibiotics; and responding to patients that go into cardiac arrest.
Jones says unpredictability reigns as every patient suffers their own symptoms and lives with their own pre-existing conditions, but the units have demonstrated the best of what’s possible when people work together to improve health outcomes. “What I’ve seen at work is everyone doing what they have to do to get the patients better, flatten the curve, decrease the amount of exposure to everyone. It’s been great,” Jones says. “It makes it very easy just to go to work.” —TM
Cardiovascular ICU nurse, Houston Medical Center
It’s safe to say nursing is in Brooke Bourbonais’s blood. Her sister works in the profession in Clear Lake, and Bourbonais herself works as a cardiovascular ICU nurse over in the Med Center on the very floor where her mother worked for years in the same role. The Clear Lake area native volunteered to work in her hospital’s reserved COVID-19 units whenever necessary, and although she was originally intimidated, she soon settled in and treated it like any other workday, just one with an n95 mask, constant glove changing, and two nets to keep her hair contained.
In recent weeks, as patient numbers have decreased, her hospital has reduced the number of COVID-19 units, and she hasn't had to report to treat novel coronavirus patients as often.
Her mother, who isn’t working in health care anymore, keeps watch from a distance and checks in regularly with her daughters. “As a mom, she’s worried about her daughters’ safety, but she knows we can handle it,” Bourbonais says. “She’s interested in everything we’re dealing with all the time, and she’s proud of us, that’s for sure.” —TM