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‘Nobody should die alone’: Towson nurse provides care, support for coronavirus patients, hospital staff

In her 23 years working as a registered nurse at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center in Towson, Cate O’Connor-Devlin, 55, has never experienced what she has had to endure over the past two months.

From dressing up in personal protective equipment to incessant hand-washing and sanitizing, she said going to work is both a burden and a privilege.

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As one of the many nurses on the front lines fighting the global coronavirus pandemic, O’Connor-Devlin persists in her commitment to GBMC’s mission: “to provide the care she would want for her own loved ones.”

On April 23, John Chessare, president and CEO of GBMC, announced 15 patients had tested positive for COVID-19 and nine were awaiting test results. Although there has been a significant flattening in the number of cases, he said, the team at GBMC must remain vigilant.

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In an effort to slow the spread of the virus, the team has adhered to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, he said.

“We, too, have done social distancing when we are out in the hallways or at meetings. We stay 6 feet away from each other,” he said. “We all wear facial coverings and are doing frequent hand-washing.”

He is grateful for the dedication of the team at GBMC and the work they have done during this time, he said.

“They are heroes,” Chessare said. “They are putting themselves at risk to save others.”

As performance improvement and patient experience administrator, it is O’Connor-Devlin’s job to ensure a positive experience for patients and their loved ones. Since the coronavirus outbreak, that includes taking the necessary precautions to maintain their health and safety.

Despite having worked with a number of patients, she said it has been a different experience working with COVID-19 patients.

“The [patients] with COVID-19 are scared,” she said. “Their families are scared to visit them.”

Tending to those patients requires personal protective equipment, making it harder to connect, she said.

“[Our] voices are muffled and [patients] can’t see people’s faces,” she said. “There is a constant barrier between holding someone’s hand or [seeing] someone’s face for comfort.”

Due to social distancing guidelines, visitors are no longer allowed in the hospital and communication must be coordinated through video chat. The hardest part of her job, O’Connor-Devlin said, has been standing in for family members who could not be in the room to say their final goodbye.

“I have been in the room with the young family that has had to say goodbye to their dad,” she said. “I [serve] as the bridge between the electronic and the personal.”

Although her experience does not compare to those serving at larger cosmopolitan hospitals, she said it is never easy.

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“We are all human and nobody should die alone,” she said.

Along with looking after her patients, she also has looked after colleagues. To address the shortage of personal protective equipment, she created a “hub” that provides the team all-day access to supplies.

Sharon Rossi, director of peri-operative services at GBMC, said O’Connor-Devlin has demonstrated strength during this time.

“[O’Connor-Devlin] is resilient,” she said. “She really has been at the helm of many of the key operations during this COVID-19 experience.”

While working together during this pandemic, she and O’Connor-Devlin have been able to support one another.

“[O’Connor-Devlin] and I have a great relationship and we are true colleagues,” she said. “[We] free flow ideas and we have the same goal in mind to take care of our patients and staff.”

Rhonda Wyskiel, director of performance improvement at GBMC who has supervised O’Connor-Devlin for the past two years, shared her view.

“Cate is one of the strongest people that I’ve worked with in a very long time,” she said. “She is strong in her values, and she is strong in her execution in what she needs to accomplish, and she is strong in her connections with patients and families and staff.”

Wyskiel said she and O’Connor-Devlin have been able to confide in one another during this time.

“There have been a number of times where there is so much uncertainty about what the end of the day or the next day is going to look like,” she said. “I can tell [O’Connor-Devlin] when I’m scared or afraid, and she has a great way of listening and acknowledging and helping me to remind myself that I am resilient and I have endurance.”

In addition to receiving support from her colleagues, O’Connor-Devlin said the team has seen encouragement from the community. Some have placed signs on their front lawns, while others have offered to baby-sit or buy groceries.

“The community has been amazing,” she said. “There has been a constant stream of food and fabric masks.”

While appreciating the gratitude of the community, she knows it is her responsibility to keep them safe.

“I want people to know that I am doing my job,” she said. “I am here to take care of people, and we are doing it to the best of our ability.”

Not only has she been able to rely on the support of the community, but also on the support of her family.

“[My] husband is my rock,” she said. “Every night when I go home, he is waiting and makes me my dinner and tea and works out with me and takes care of me.”

Although it is too early to tell, O’Connor-Devlin said she believes this pandemic will change the way health care is practiced in the years to come. Despite an unforeseeable future, she is grateful to be a part of the fight.

“I am so honored to be a nurse, and the fact that this pandemic has given me the opportunity to help families in any small way is humbling for me,” she said.

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