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‘You don’t feel like you’re a hero:’ Former political refugee helps lead Saint Agnes coronavirus unit

Ellicott City resident Vera Lertora, a clinical nurse coordinator at Saint Agnes Hospital's COVID-19 response unit, poses for a photo inside the hospital.
Ellicott City resident Vera Lertora, a clinical nurse coordinator at Saint Agnes Hospital's COVID-19 response unit, poses for a photo inside the hospital. (Courtesy of Vera Lertora / XX)

When Vera Lertora fled communist Czechoslavkia as a refugee in 1989, her journey to the United States was among the scariest times in her life.

She crossed the border into Austria and spent her early 20s living in a refugee camp. She was seeking asylum — and opportunity.

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Lertora settled in Ellicott City in 1993, learning a new language and starting a cleaning business to pay for college. She pursued her lifelong dream of becoming a registered nurse while raising three children as a single mother.

Now 53, Lertora has started a new stage of her journey, becoming one of three unit coordinators in Saint Agnes Hospital’s COVID-19 Response Unit.

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“It’s very hectic,” she said of the COVID-19 floor of the Arbutus-area hospital. Once treating 20 patients with the coronavirus a week, the hospital created a second COVID-19 response team last month after its first unit filled to capacity.

“It’s like the new normal we have,” Lertora said.

She sleep restlessly on nights before she goes into work, she said, “because you never know what you’re coming into and what your day is going to look like."

Lertora’s supervisor Erynn Bossom said Lertora has been “instrumental in helping our unit successfully transition” from a neuro-stroke unit to treating coronavirus patients.

“She is positive, she’s motivating,” Bossom said. ““There are many days recently where you see her sweating, because she’s just working so hard.”

When Lertora arrives for her 12-hour shift, she said her work “starts the minute you walk in and doesn’t end until you get home.”

The influx of patients suffering from the virus began in late April, Lertora said.

“Now we’re seeing the COVID patients that can really deteriorate very fast — that’s the scary part,” she said. “That’s the things that go through your head.”

Jasmine Gonzalez, Lakesha Smith, Vera Lertora and Lauren Hart pose for a photo at Saint Agnes Hospital on South Caton Avenue.
Jasmine Gonzalez, Lakesha Smith, Vera Lertora and Lauren Hart pose for a photo at Saint Agnes Hospital on South Caton Avenue. (Courtesy of Vera Lertora / XX)

As hospital staff members adjust to an ever-changing predicament, they’ve had to be innovative, Bossom said. She said Lertora helped repurpose donated baby monitors into monitors for patients with more severe COVID-19 symptoms, allowing the unit’s 55 nurses to observe them remotely and preserve personal protective equipment.

She also helped coordinate the use of extension tubing for intravenous therapy to keep IV pumps outside the rooms of coronavirus patients.

“She’s a great leader,” said Katie Blood, a clinical practice educator at St. Agnes who worked with Lertora to compile a coronavirus toolkit for unit nurses.

Lertora has her good days and her bad days.

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“You love your patients and when you see them dying ... you don’t feel like you’re a hero," she said.

Her good days are when she goes home knowing she hasn’t lost anyone, and that her patients are stable.

To unwind at home, Lertora makes surgical caps for hospital staff. It makes her feel like she’s “contributing to something,” she said.

“It is challenging,” Lertora said. “But I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”

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