PEOPLE's Voices from the Coronavirus Crisis will share firsthand accounts of the people facing unique challenges during a global pandemic

By Joelle Goldstein
April 08, 2020 04:08 PM
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Kristyn Nufrio works as a nurse across four offices in a New Jersey primary care practice. Because this time of year tends to be slower as flu season comes to an end, Nufrio, 33, and her colleagues typically will bring in as many patients as possible for annual wellness checks. That all changed when COVID-19 began rapidly spreading around the Somerset and Middlesex County areas. With healthy patients avoiding in-person appointments and limited supplies to test those who were ill, Nufrio worked in the offices until the practice started closing down some of their sites. Knowing that some of her colleagues needed to work more than she did, Nufrio offered her hours to them while she stayed home to care for her two children. Here, Nufrio talks about the difficult transition from being a working professional to a stay-at-home mom — and why she wishes she could be back on the frontlines.

I’ve been home now for the past week. When we started closing up offices, I offered my hours to people who might need them more than I do. Because my kids aren’t in daycare, I was needed more at home than at work. I figured I’d give up my hours to somebody who might need them to pay their bills [and] it helps my husband out, too, because he’s trying to work from home.

I’m kind of on standby, so if they need me, they’ll let me know when to come in for a shift. But I’m definitely appreciating my job more and more, the more time I spend at home.

It’s tough because as a nurse, I almost feel — I don’t want to say helpless, but being a stay-at-home mom was not my plan in life. It’s hard for me to be at home. I’m feeling a sense of loss of identity. It’s definitely been a very tough transition. I give a lot of credit to the people who do it regularly. I feel like I transitioned better into all of the COVID stuff at work then I have to the stay-at-home mom role.

I’m one of the lucky people who loves their job. I feel like I should be doing more. That’s part of being a nurse — it’s something that’s ingrained in you. There’s a certain type of personality for people who go into nursing and I feel like [helping others] is what I’m meant to do. So it’s tough to now be sitting here and waiting for them to text me.

I’m seeing all these posts of my friends putting up pictures and talking about their patients and I’m here wearing my pajamas from yesterday. It’s one of those things that makes me feel like I’m kind of failing at my career. I just miss it.

Kristyn Nufrio
Courtesy Kristyn Nufrio

At the same time, I’m thankful to be home because at least I know I’m safe. Going into the office, it is very stressful. I work in primary care so my experience was a lot different than everybody who works in a hospital.

Typically, if somebody comes in for a normal appointment, they would be up at the front desk interacting with the receptionist. The medical assistant would bring them back. The doctor or nurse practitioner would go in and see them and then if they needed a nebulizer or anything like that, the nurse would go in and administer those medications. At any point in time, there could be five or six people in the room or that you’re interacting with per visit. But when we have a patient who we think potentially could have COVID, that number goes down to just the provider. We had to revamp all of our protocols.

Anybody that has COVID symptoms now gets put back to the triage nurse and in that sense, we’ve been a lot busier. Everybody’s being put back to talk to us and find out what their symptoms are and go from there to determine what level of care they need. We’re trying not to bring people in the office if we don’t have to. We don’t have the capacity to test. Getting supplies for testing is very limited.

In the office, we don’t want to risk exposure to anybody else so we try to bring them in through one of the back doors or in an entrance that regular people aren’t using. We get them a mask and bring them right into the room with the provider in their [personal protective equipment].

But it’s still tough because even though we try to confine them to a room, if they have to use the bathroom, obviously we have to let them out. And with kids, they don’t cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze. Even though we try, there’s still that little bit of risk of exposure because you can’t control what a three or four-year-old does.

Kristyn Nufrio

I try not to bring anything into the office that I don’t have to. The PPE shortage is everywhere. At work, I wear my own N95 mask and I’ve been wearing a jacket on top of my scrubs. Before I get in my car, I take the jacket off so I’m not sitting in my car potentially contaminated.

When I come home, my husband meets me at the front door. He would open the door and I would just go straight into the bathroom, strip down, toss everything into the washing machine, and hop into the shower so I wouldn’t come into contact with anything or anybody. I feel like I have to do the same now when I go out to the store, which is even more frustrating.

Everybody says, ‘Oh, the flu makes more people sick and the flu kills more people’ and yes it does, but that’s over the course of a year — not over the course of three weeks, like what we’re seeing now.

During flu season, you don’t see an overload in hospitals because severe symptoms are a possible complication. It’s not part of the disease like this is. It’s going to affect a large number of people and unfortunately, it’s going to hospitalize a large number of people.

Kristyn Nufrio
Courtesy Kristyn Nufrio

When that’s somebody that you know — when that’s your neighbor or that’s your kid’s teacher or your baseball coach — and it’s within a small community, it’s a significant loss. We need to be able to take care of them.

You don’t want to be stuck in a position where you’re trying to handle things that you can’t, whether it be not having enough PPE or not knowing how to take care of a patient on a ventilator. That’s one thing that absolutely terrifies me now, is the risk of [being drafted to the ERs and ICUs]. It’s been since nursing school, like eight years ago, that I’ve had to deal with a patient on a vent. So you’d be kind of throwing me to the wolves there if that was my new reality.

My message for others is to stay the F home. If they feel the need to get out of their house, that they can go and drive past any local ER that has all the tents set up to house all the people that they can’t fit in the hospital. That’s something that has not happened in our time. But this is my job. This is what we do and we’re going to keep showing up.

  • As told to Joelle Goldstein