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‘This is what we trained for’: Nurses at Baltimore’s Mercy Hospital volunteer for coronavirus duty

Brian Avaritt, a nurse in the recovery room, and Cindy Voith, a registered nurse, work with COVID19 patients at Mercy Medical Center

A coronavirus patient, an elderly man, was struggling, his moans cutting through the rhythmic pulse of the ventilator in his room at Mercy Hospital. Cindy Voith of Towson, his nurse, tried to give comfort.

“His family said he liked ‘God Bless America,’ so I began to sing it, though I’ve got the worst voice ever,” said Voith, an R.N. “He was sedated, but he recognized the song and tried to join in.”

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She’d struck a chord, which was what she was hoping for. The patient later died.

“You make the end comfortable — and that’s very big to nurses,” Voith, 58, said. “Even if the outcome isn’t good, you do all you can to treat each patient with dignity.”

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Two months ago, Voith worked in Mercy’s recovery room. The pandemic changed that. With elective surgeries waning, the hospital offered nurses in many units the opportunity to cross-train and possibly treat COVID-19 patients.

Voith and Brian Avaritt were among the first of 71 to volunteer. Like Voith, Avaritt, an easy-going 6-foot, 2-inch caregiver whom colleagues call “Big B,” worked in recovery but also has intensive care unit know-how.

“Both Cindy and Brian have charge nurse leadership experience, a compassion for patients and a willingness to do whatever is needed in this crisis,” said Kristy O’Neill, Director of Perianesthesia Services at Mercy.

Neither nurse said they fear for their own well-being while treating COVID-19 victims, given the safety gear that covers nearly every inch of their skin, head to toe.

“The plastic face shield makes me feel like a welder,” Voith said.

Avaritt, 35, of Ellicott City, said he is “more fearful of getting the virus in the grocery store than from my patients. The hospital PPE [personal protective equipment] gives me peace of mind; it’s my ‘blankie.’ Plus, I probably wash my hands, gosh, hundreds of times a day."

In public, he said, “I’m more hyper vigilant about what I touch and whom I talk to. In conversations, I find myself listening for any lung issues and assessing people to see if they are sick.”

At times he looks inward, like after finishing a meal in the break room at Mercy.

“Sometimes you cough just to clear your [throat,]” Avaritt said. "Then you wonder: is that the COVID or just me clearing my throat?”

But that’s forgotten when he heads back to work in his PPE passing through a network of safety doors, plastic walls and anterooms, which aid in preventing the spread of infection.

“Behind all that [gear] you try to be as human as you can,” Voith said. "You sit with them; you hold their hands. . And whether or not a patient goes home, you tell yourself, ‘this is what we trained for.’ ”

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