Bobbie Lona Nienkark was working as a nurse in San Jose, California, this winter when patients started arriving at the emergency room complaining of shortness of breath, dizziness and headaches.
By early March, nearly all the patients in the Regional Medical Center ER were COVID-19 positive, said the Maquoketa native who is the daughter of Lynn and Cindy Nienkark.
As the pandemic “spread like wildfire” through the community, masks ran low and medical staffers were asked to re-wear personal protective equipment. Nursing homes were calling the hospital asking to bring all of their residents into the emergency department so they could clean their facilities.
Nienkark remembers the heartache amid the hard work as medical professionals and other staff became sick, spreading the virus to their loved ones at home – and some losing their lives.
“Infection control guidelines were changing daily,” she said. Surgery floors were converted to intensive care units and entire floors of the hospital were positive for the coronavirus. Shifts ran well past 12 hours as staff tried to care for patients.
“I am a nurse, I am adaptable. We have been educated on protocols and guidelines since nursing school, and often in the workplace. We are not heroes, this is our job,” said Nienkark, a 2011 graduate of Maquoketa Community High School where she was a member of Health Occupation Students of America and a student of Jackie Crowley and Paulette Horner. She received her bachelors of nursing from Clarke University and is studying to become a nurse practitioner.
“Every day I would come into work, staying positive. Every shift I was placed with covid patients who were struggling mentally, physically, spiritually, financially, and were scared to come into the hospital for fear of being alone, and not understanding,” she said. “I supported my patients the best way I know how, patient-centered care, advocating for those intubated with no voice. Straight to work, home to shower, wash my clothes, make a run to the grocery store, and to bed. The first few months my routine had not changed that much, because I was busy working.”
In April, Nienkark tested positive for COVID-19.
“I felt anxiety, heaviness, and tightness in my chest. I was sleeping my hours off, dealing with throbbing headaches; when I became dizzy, almost collapsing at work after a 30-foot walk. That is when I knew I had COVID,” she said, adding that the first four days were the worst.
“I honestly was scared for my life, as I expressed to my two best friends, but I did not stop moving,” she said. “When you stop moving, your body gives into the virus, making you more prone to other infections like pneumonia, and with the pain to take deep breaths, I cannot imagine the pain endured by patients with comorbidities such as COPD, congestive heart failure, asthma, obesity, and many others. The virus does not know age or color; it’s on a path to attack and damage our cells.”
A traveling nurse who has worked in emergency rooms serving diverse populations in cities across the United States for five years, Nienkark’s San Jose contract was canceled while she was quarantined. When her energy came back weeks later she “decided to be a part of history and head to the northeast to support the community suffering there. I felt I had a better understanding of the virus itself and felt like an army vet after her first tour when I headed to New York in May.”
She currently works at Interfaith Medical Center, a community hospital in inner-city Brooklyn, and she sees daily the aftermath of COVID-19 for people who live in an underserved community that struggles to have services and equipment.
“My eyes welled up within moments of walking into the emergency department, and all the faces of the travelers (traveling nurses) looked the same,” she said.
“Right now, we are seeing more of the aftershock, secondary to the inflammation in the lungs, leading to hyper coagulation of the blood, causing pulmonary embolisms, strokes, not to mention the immunocompromised dying from common diseases such as pneumonia and dehydration,” she said.
She stays at hotels provided by the Emergency Nurse Association.
“That New York City doesn’t sleep is not just a saying – from road construction, cars honking, sirens, gunshots, rioters and protest there is no rest,” she said. She currently is staying in the SoHo area, taking the subway to her job where she works until 11:30 p.m.
“New York is humid, more humid than Iowa, and I’ll tell you that inside of the hospital, wearing plastic on top of plastic, it becomes almost unbearably hot,” she said.
As of Memorial Day, the hospital where she works has not had any new cases of COVID-19, she said. That was welcome news to her as she continues serving on the frontlines. The experience of working on both coasts during the coronavirus has left a mark on her.
“I do not know that healthcare will ever be the same. I hope that this pandemic leads to more self-awareness for the general public, prevention methods and holistic remedies,” she said.