Like most nurses, Santa Clarita resident Charisse Hammer has always felt empathy towards her patients.
“My habit, I don’t like how I do this, but no matter who I take care of, I always just put myself in the position of the family, like, ‘What if that was my mom … dad … children … husband?’” Hammer said.
It’s that empathy that has pushed her to care for her patients at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital like they were her own family, yet when the coronavirus pandemic began, she never expected to have those thoughts become a reality.
“We had just opened up the first COVID unit downstairs on the first floor of Henry Mayo, and I got a call from my sister that my dad was sick,” Hammer said. “And of course, we’re thinking, ‘Crap, we hope it’s not COVID,’ but because it was still an evolving (situation), we thought let’s just see what happens.”
Each day, Hammer would call her dad, 79-year-old Jose Miranda Jr., to check in and make sure he wasn’t exhibiting symptoms of COVID.
“And he wasn’t, however, the moment he told me he had no taste is when I got concerned,” Hammer added.
Though Miranda was feeling OK, a couple days later he ended up spiking a fever, and by the next day, he was completely labored in his breathing, unable to walk more than a couple steps, nor dress himself.
And on March 31, a little over a week after Miranda had gotten sick, Hammer received a call from her sister. Miranda’s breathing had gotten worse and she had called the paramedics.
“From there, I told my dad that he needed to go to the hospital because from listening to him over the phone and barely being able to communicate just a few words, I knew he was becoming hypoxic (or deprived of oxygen),” Hammer said.
As her brother rushed Miranda to Henry Mayo, Hammer began calling every doctor she knew.
“I was like, ‘Hey, I don’t know if you’re working right now, but I need you to receive my dad. He’s on his way to the hospital,’” Hammer said. “And sure enough, one of the physicians who is a good friend of mine and all around great, he was actually 10 minutes away from the hospital going in to work, so that was a blessing.”
Soon, Miranda was intubated and put in the COVID ward, as his real battle with the virus was just beginning. He would spend the next 23 days intubated and a total of 63 in the hospital.
“The first month and a half was hard because I was picking up extra shifts just so I could check on him and make sure he was comfortable,” Hammer said.
For Hammer, who had never had to care for a family member who was critically ill, it was a whole new dynamic. “I go in (to the hospital, and) I’m a nurse, but when I step into his room, I’m his daughter — the whole nurse card just goes out the window.”
Nonetheless, it was the support of the Henry Mayo staff, physicians and nurses that helped her through it.
“I can’t even tell you how amazing the care was,” Hammer said. “It’s not just because I work there as a nurse, but they were so receptive to my requests and my needs in communicating every step.”
In fact, when she started at Henry Mayo back in 2012, she says she knew it was different. “It’s a community hospital, and they are honestly like a family. They look out for each other so much, and … I’m so grateful for that.”
Having read up on what was going on with COVID patients in other parts of the country, Hammer knew there were risks.
“You hear things like, ‘Terminally extubating’ or ‘Once they’re intubated, they don’t make it off the vent,’ but because of those outcomes, we were lucky enough to read what practices have been going on and see what had worked and what had failed,” Hammer said.
Days away from needing a tracheostomy, where doctors would need to create an opening in his neck to access his windpipe, Miranda was finally extubated.
“He did so well,” Hammer said. “The only issue is that he lost his voice for a little bit.”
Even so, Miranda remained in the COVID unit to ensure he was negative as he began rigorous rehab.
Finally, on June 1, Hammer wheeled Miranda out of the hospital as staff lined the hallway, clapping and cheering, a moment Hammer said felt like the final dream scene at the end of “Titanic.”
“That’s exactly what it felt like because as we were going through, you could just pinpoint who had worked with my dad,” Hammer said. “It was so awesome.”
Once out the hospital doors, Miranda was surprised to see family and friends for the first time in months. “He was just in awe.”
Now, two weeks after his release, Miranda is a little weak, but “kicking (butt).”
“He’s been just so patient and soft spoken and so appreciative,” Hammer said. “I think he realizes what happened now because, believe it or not, when I asked him if he remembered anything, he honestly said he felt like he’d only been hospitalized for like two days.”
Though those two months flew by, they’ve certainly had an impact on Miranda and his family.
“I think overall, I just appreciate what I do a lot more, not that I haven’t before, but it’s definitely changed,” Hammer said. “I mean, work is always going to be stressful, but I think at the end of the day, you walk out of there just being more thankful and grateful every time.”