Cardiac ICU Nurse Puts Her Heart into COVID-19 Care

Taking a team approach to caring for coronavirus patients

Della Tagayuna, RN, a nurse in the cardiovascular intensive care unit (ICU) at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla, thrives on caring for patients with the most serious cardiac conditions. Today she puts her heart into caring for those with COVID-19.  

Experienced with critical illness, risk and loss, she and her fellow nurses, physicians and techs are there for critical coronavirus patients throughout their treatment journey.  

“We had a patient who was with us for 60 days, and he just got worse and worse,” Tagayuna recalls. “We tried everything. We tried all the meds, the lifesaving devices, and it seemed like he was at death’s doorstep a handful of times. But one day he took a turn for the better, and he got better day after day until he was able to walk out of his room, get discharged and go home.” 

Miraculous moments like these brighten Tagayuna’s days and keep her strong as the pandemic wears on. She enjoys getting to know the person behind the medications and labs, behind the pain and fear. As this patient recovered, his personality began to shine, she says. “He was witty, funny and insightful” about his experience. 

“This is what I signed up for from nursing school over a decade ago,” she says. “This is what I do, what I was trained to do and what I will still be doing after [COVID] has passed. It’s an honor for me.”

Changing how care is provided

Changing how care is provided

“Whether it’s a heart surgery patient or a COVID-19 patient, we take a team approach and help each other through this crisis so we can save lives.” 

Now a few months into COVID-19 care, personal protective equipment — including masks, eye goggles and face shields — have become second nature to Tagayuna and her colleagues. Shielded behind masks and gowns and other PPE, they communicate with their eyes to better connect emotionally and compassionately with patients and step in as extended family. Patients often feel isolated and anxious when in the hospital for long periods, and during COVID-19 they are not able to have visitors, including family and friends.

Specialized lifesaving techniques and equipment are also now part of the routine. One device that mimics lung activity allows more oxygen to circulate throughout the body so lungs can rest and recover. The “tummy time” technique turns adult patients face down on their stomachs to allow for lung expansion and oxygenation.

“All of us are there 100 percent for our patients, from the pharmacist to the physical therapist to the nurse and doctor,” says Tagayuna. “Whether it’s a heart surgery patient or a COVID-19 patient, we take a team approach and help each other through this crisis so we can save lives.” 

When her long shift ends, Tagayuna passes the dozens of thank you cards and letters from children and families that are taped to ICU walls — an uplifting reminder of why she and her peers do what they do. She takes a shower at the hospital, double-bags her dirty scrubs and puts on clean clothes. She knows the dangers of spreading COVID-19.

“My patients make it all worth it, but I also have to take responsibility for protecting my family,” she says. “I know that when I go home, I’m protecting my 11-month-old child and my husband.” 

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