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Leading by example

Nurse recounts experiences treating COVID patients

Little things like holding her daughter Charlotte and being held by her husband Kenneth mean even more now to Pilot Point resident Rebecca Berry.

That’s because she spent two months working as a Parkland Hospital Tactical Care Unit nurse, caring for COVID-19-positive patients in Dallas.

“I want to be a source of hope and comfort and healing to somebody,” she said. “I want to meet the most vulnerable people right where they are and change their life.”

After her shifts in the unit, Rebecca stayed in an RV parked in her driveway in Pilot Point instead of chancing bringing the virus home to her family.

Although Rebecca has returned home and to her job as nurse manager at the Parkland Ambulatory Surgical Center, the impact of her experience made a deep impression on her.

Working in the TCU

The Tactical Care Unit is basically a hospital within a hospital.

With 116 beds inside a “negative pressure bubble,” as Rebecca called it, the unit was created for the sole purpose of housing and treating COVID-19-positive patients.

“There’s one specific way in and one specific way out,” she said. “And before you entered into that unit, you donned all of your equipment and you stayed in that for your entire shift.”

Rebecca described the first layer, saying it “becomes your body basically.”

“I’m taking the same precautions that I would by doing my hand hygiene in between patients or donning certain PPE in between patients, but I’m doing it on top of the gear that I already have on,” she said.

The only exceptions to that, she said, were when the nurses needed to drink water, use the restroom or eat. Before staff members could resume their work, they had to again go through the PPE process.

She didn’t anticipate how physically demanding it would be, working under so much equipment that made her feel like “a safe Michelin Man” in a unit that has limited airflow.

“They cut you out of your gown,” Rebecca said.

Once, when a coworker was helping her out of her suit, Rebecca said the woman told her, “I can feel the heat coming from your body.”

Leading by example

Rebecca volunteered to become part of the unit when the volume at the surgery center decreased to about 25%.

She “felt very called at that time to lead by example” when members of her surgery center team asked about volunteering for the COVID unit, she said.

She served as a TCU resource nurse, which meant she got to help care for multiple patients throughout each shift.

Rebecca is a self-described fixer who takes “pride in being able to address issues” and having a direct positive impact on her patients.

The unpredictable nature of the virus’ impact hit against that personality trait.

“You can have two patients, both with the same level of general health, present with the exact same symptoms, the exact same way at the same time and one will be completely fine and recover, and one, over a matter of hours to days, just completely decompensate,” she said.

At times, the work was overwhelming.

The feeling of being unable to control how her patients responded to treatment. The physically demanding task of rushing from patient to patient coated in layers. The isolation from her loved ones.

“My coworkers are really empowering, and they make the difference in me being defeated or overwhelmed or me being empowered,” she said. “And I felt that I was met with the resources and the team that I needed.”

Purpose in service

There were several aspects of nursing that appealed to Rebecca when she was choosing a career path.

“I just really wanted to be a light in the darkness,” she said.

Then, while she was in school, her family experienced an emergency that helped shape Rebecca’s life.

Her brother-in-law was burned badly during a house fire, and he was taken to the Parkland Burn Center.

Seeing the medical staff’s “passion and the way that they just gave him hope” as well as the rest of the family inspired her. She committed to herself that she would become not only a nurse, but specifically a Parkland nurse.

And she has been able to do that, and to be there for the “the most vulnerable people” like she had hoped, especially in the Tactical Care Unit.

“You’re the lifeline between them and their family,” she said.

Some of the hardest moments were when she helped loved ones say goodbye to each other.

Her greatest joys came when she and the other medical staff could celebrate with patients who had recovered and were being discharged, something the hospital calls Code Happy.

“It’s the best sound, because it means that we’re making a difference,” Rebecca said. “It means that everything that we’re doing, it’s not in vain.”

Family behind her

Rebecca called her husband “such an amazing guy” and expressed her appreciation for the sacrifices he made to allow her to volunteer for the TCU.

“Whenever I feel passionately about something, he supports that 100%,” Rebecca said.

While she had to keep her distance, Rebecca’s husband and mother kept her connected to them and to Charlotte. When Rebecca was in the RV, Kenneth would bring their infant daughter to play in the garage so mother and daughter could see each other.

It was hard on him, too, to not be able to hold his sweetheart and to miss sharing the milestones for their first child with her next to him, he said. At the same time, he’s in awe of the work she did.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “I’m so proud of her, working hard every night, countless hours—14-hour shifts, 16-hour shifts.”

Not being able to celebrate with her family up close for her first Mother’s Day after having Charlotte and then the next day—Rebecca’s birthday—was also hard, she said.

“But at the same time, I know for a fact that when she grows up and hears my story, it’s going to inspire her, not only to persevere in the face of [adversity] and to be that much stronger of a woman, but also to do what’s right and not what’s easy,” she said.

Her mother helped Kenneth care for the baby while Rebecca couldn’t. She did so until her own father, Rebecca’s grandfather, died.

“I got off the COVID unit, and then I had to go to another hospital to say goodbye to him the very next day,” she said.

Rebecca was grateful for the care the other hospital gave her grandfather and for the chance she had to “be able to be with him in some of his last moments.”

A week after Rebecca went on bereavement leave, she and Kenneth decided it was time to be all together as a family again.

Reuniting with them was “the best day of my life, second to the day she was born.”

Pilot Point support

Rebecca and Kenneth had to come up with a way to protect their baby during Rebecca’s turn in the Tactical Care Unit.

The solution: an RV her parents use to camp. They took the idea to the city to make sure they would not be violating its rules.

Technically, the city employee told Rebecca, they would be because people are generally not supposed to live in something like an RV for more than 72 hours at a time.

However, the city made an exception.

“His specific words were, ‘I will fight tooth and nail to keep your family safe,’” she said.

Although Rebecca is a Pilot Point transplant since 2018, her husband grew up here.

Their move to town came after the death of Kenneth’s friends Chance Vaughn and Jarman Johnson.

“In the aftermath of that situation, I saw this entire community of people, these entire groups of people, just coming together, supporting one another, loving one another and being there for each other,” she said.

She felt that support during her time on the TCU, including when someone put a care package on the steps of her RV.

“In moments where you feel lonely and defeated, those things mean a lot,” she said. “So, I’m just very thankful for the community that I live in.”

Normal life for now

Although Rebecca is back in her regular role at Parkland, the possibility looms that she could have to return to the Tactical Care Unit.

“We’re going to cross that bridge when we get there,” Rebecca said. “Right now, our volume at the surgery center supports all of the people from the ASC to be there at the moment.”

With more businesses reopening and policies changing, a second COVID-19 wave could happen. If it does hit and decreases the surgery center’s caseload again, she could be headed to the TCU again.

“Fingers crossed that everybody stays safe and makes good choices so we can be with our families,” Rebecca said.

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