Faces of the Pandemic: “Compassion goes a long ways”
Front-line nurse in Basalt shares her frustration over increasing cases of COVID and optimism for the vaccine
Faces of the Pandemic
Less than a month after the COVID-19 pandemic swept into the Roaring Fork Valley in mid-March, registered nurse Maria McHale was helping people who were feeling ill. She and her colleagues haven’t let up since.
On April 16, McHale was part of a team working for hours in an open-sided tent to provide tests and screenings of people with COVID symptoms in El Jebel. They shrugged off working in cold temperatures with wet snow falling.
McHale, 33, works at MidValley Family Practice, which has established a nonprofit arm to provide COVID tests and consultations for people regardless of their ability to pay. The practice also teamed with Eagle County Public Health and the Mobile Intercultural Resource Alliance to provide regular free tests and care via a mobile unit in the El Jebel area, with a focus on the immigrant population.
McHale speaks fluent Spanish so she is a vital link between the health care providers and the immigrant community. She was able to share with people safe practices and what they needed to do when they were sick.
McHale acknowledged the work can be stressful. She has treated people that later were required to be intubated because of the severity of their illness.
“At first I was scared,” McHale said. “Eventually, you have to get past the fear.”
She didn’t want to bring home the virus to her husband and young son or her mother, who is their primary child care provider.
Despite the concerns, she’s found three sources of inspiration. First, she knows she and her colleagues are providing care and education that otherwise might not have reached some of their patients, particularly early in the pandemic.
Free testing sites have only recently proliferated in the valley. MidValley Family Practice remains one of the few clinics seeing patients in person.
A year-end series by The Aspen Times taking a look at the people behind the masks who helped our community get through 2020. To read more profiles, go to aspentimes.com/faces-of-the-pandemic
Second, she finds inspiration in friends who work in intensive care units of local hospitals. She said they are “heroes” who are most at risk while caring for those most sick from COVID.
“I consider myself a front-line worker,” she said, “but not like the nurses in the ICU.”
McHale has also been inspired to help others by thinking of her own family. “How would I want my parents treated?” she asked.
“This is worth it,” McHale said of the effort.
It’s frustrating to her that after the Roaring Fork Valley and adjacent regions saw such a high number of COVID cases last spring that more precautions weren’t taken to avoid a repeat performance.
“The second wave has been the really big downer for me,” she said. “It was predicted to be a tough winter,” she said. “Now we’re seeing that.”
Despite testing and treating hundreds of ill people over the past nine months, she has avoided infection. A nephew living with her parents became ill, so she and her entire extended family got tested.
McHale quarantined for a week while awaiting the test result, which was negative. That broadened her understanding and compassion for people who are struggling through illness and associated problems, such as loss of work and inability to pay bills.
“It made me realize, ‘Oh, wow, this is what they’re really talking about,’” McHale said. “Sometimes you don’t understand a situation completely until you’re placed in it.
“Most people, it sounds like they want to do the right thing but also what I have learned is that the socio-economic roles are impacting that because people live paycheck to paycheck,” McHale continued.
People who continue to work despite illness might be doing so out of necessity rather than selfishness.
“I would have to say if I didn’t have my husband, I wouldn’t be able to stay at home with quarantine for 14 days,” she said. “So, I understand these people.”
But McHale also has strong feelings about individual responsibility during a pandemic. If a person is ill enough or concerned enough that they get a test or treatment, she feels they have a moral obligation to take proper steps to avoid spreading the coronavirus. That includes social distancing, wearing a mask and quarantining while waiting to find out if they have the virus.
“It’s not about the lab result. It’s about taking the proper actions,” she said.
The team at the clinic received their COVID vaccinations on Dec. 18. McHale said she initially felt guilty and “non-deserving” of being among the first people to receive the vaccine. But while talking to colleagues at lunch one day, she came to realize they can only care for others if they stay healthy themselves.
“I can’t wait until it rolls out to the public and I can’t wait to see the impact that it makes,” she said.
McHale has another wish for the New Year.
“Be nice to your health people because they’re so burned out,” she said. “We’re working double. We’re working COVID and the normal health care services. Compassion goes a long ways.”
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As much as anyone else, Dr. Greg Balko is tired of the pandemic. The emergency medicine physician and other health care workers on the front lines in Aspen are experiencing the same pandemic fatigue that has wearied many in the face of COVID-19.