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Published on May 08, 2020

Behind the mask: CCH nurses on the COVID-19 frontlines

Nicole Vardakis

When Teresa Knight found out she would be one of the nurses working at the drive-through COVID-19 testing site in the parking lot of Cape Cod Community College, she wasn’t scared — she was excited.

Having created the site early on in the outbreak, she realized how seriously Cape Cod Healthcare was responding to the pandemic, she said.

“This site came together really quickly; like over a weekend,” she said. “We showed up on day one, we weren’t sure what to expect or how we were going to do it and we pulled it together really quickly.”

As a nurse, she said the testing itself isn’t too different from the routine flu swab. The difference is in the circumstances, where each day during the COVID-19 pandemic is uncertain. Work days typically spent onboarding new nurses and writing policy are now spent outside at the testing site, alternating layers of clothing beneath hospital-provided scrubs to suit the unpredictable weather.

Nicole Vardakis, who works in the triage tent outside of Cape Cod Hospital and in the main Emergency Room at the hospital, echoed a similar sentiment.

“The only thing I find so comforting is that we’re all doing this together,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re the president of the United States, if you’re a rock star, if you’re a homeless person — this is brand new to all of us.”

Working through this uncharted territory is her job, and Vardakis said it’s her obligation as a nurse to treat people; COVID-19 or not.

“I never expected anything like this in my life,” she said. “But I think that as a healthcare worker, I always wanted to be a nurse, and I signed up to take care of sick people, no matter what.”

More Than Just a Test

Taking care of sick people at the hospital means more than just administering a test. Patients come in alone, with the exception of young children, and offering a sense of solidarity and understanding makes an impact. Often the hardest part comes when caring for COVID-19 patients who are close to the end of their life.

“I try to make it the best I can; maybe try and say a prayer for them and hold their hand,” she said.

Drive-through testing may also seem impersonal. When patients pull up to the testing site, they’re greeted with a series of security checkpoints and nurses wearing full personal protective equipment and Power Air-Purifying Respirators (PAPR). Knight said it looks like “something out of a movie.”

But underneath it all they just want their patients to feel comfortable and not alone.

“Some people look okay, they pull up, they’re fearless,” she said. “Some people pull up and they’re really nervous; they’re in tears and we have to take a few minutes with them to assure them and let them know it’s going to be okay.”

Knight recalled an instance that she will never forget: a healthcare worker driving into the site as a patient instead of a staff member. The gate attendant warned the nurses that the particular patient was emotional, and Knight and her team worked to calm her down. What she needed most was someone who understood and could tell her it was going to be okay, she said.

“We don’t know whether or not it’s going to be okay, but we know that she wasn’t alone,” she said.

Staff Solidarity

As healthcare workers, Knight and Vardakis go to work every day prepared to combat COVID-19 and save lives. Behind the masks, they’re members of a community on Cape Cod working to support and uplift each other.

Knight said she has received an overwhelming sense of appreciation from the patients she sees. For Vardakis, police officers and fire fighters waiting outside the hospital to applaud healthcare workers, and community acts of kindness like sending food and thank you notes are what give her the most hope.

“Something good usually always comes out of something bad,” she said. “And hopefully, between relationships and people taking a step back, or maybe being safer at work, caring about people we work with more, I think we’re going to be okay.”

Both Knight and Vardakis said that they see a similar sense of solidarity among their coworkers.

“We have nurses who’ve never worked together before and they very quickly became not only a team but family,” Knight said. “Everyone here is now lifelong friends from the time that we’ve spent here. It’s a wonderful team of people; any of them will step up and do anything for each other and that makes all the world of difference here.”

Featured Photo: Nicole Vardakis, RN