The panicked phone calls began in January.
If coronavirus spread widely in the United States, what would it mean for young patients who’d received heart transplants? Given their compromised immune systems, should they attend school? Should their parents go to work? Would essential check-up trips to the hospital be safe?
A process that’s rife with tension under the best circumstances took on new layers of anxiety.
For 47 patients who’d received or were awaiting new hearts at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore, the person on the other end of the line was Consuela Thompson.
As a nurse practitioner, Thompson helps guide transplant patients through every before and after step associated with life-altering surgeries. That now includes living in a pandemic.
“I clearly saw this was not something that was going away in three or six months,” Thompson said. “So how do you prepare for a new normal?”
Her patients’ anxieties became her own as she tried to think ahead to every eventuality. Her workload increased “exponentially” as she adjusted regimented recovery schedules to a more dangerous, uncertain reality.
Thompson retained her calm in the face of these new challenges, longtime friend Virginia Richard said.
“She’s not an alarmist at all,” Richard said. “It’s ‘This is how it goes and how do we deal with it?’ … But she’s just constantly talking about and thinking about what she’s doing with her patients.”
Thompson, 50, came to Baltimore in 1993 on a Teach for America assignment. From there, she went to nursing school at Johns Hopkins in hopes of finding a career that would blend teaching, science and personal connection. She spent 14 years in the pediatric intensive care unit, but she constantly looked for new avenues of education to deepen her experience.
Two years ago, she began working with transplant patients.
The immersive nature of the job appealed to her. In the ICU, she might engage with a patient for a few days. But she could meet a transplant recipient in elementary school and expect to remain a part of that patient’s life through the end of college.
“The complexity of managing a transplant is so much more than what TV shows tell you,” she said. “It comes with a lot of tradeoffs, and helping people balance those while also living their best lives, is really important.”
The onset of the pandemic reinforced Thompson’s role as an all-around counselor to patients and their families.
There were practical concerns, such as helping parents find scarce medications or arranging safe trips to Hopkins for heart-function tests.
But she also talked teenage patients through the disappointments of canceled graduations and separations from girlfriends and boyfriends. She grinned as younger patients showed off art projects conceived under quarantine or as she watched parents and children interact in home settings via video chat.
For all the difficulties created by the pandemic, the essence of Thompson’s job has not changed. She meets patients at rock bottom, when their hearts have failed and their options are few, and sticks close by as they battle for a more stable future.
“I’m with them the whole way,” she said.
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