Caring on the COVID-19 front lines: “I took a leave from my job to treat some of the sickest patients in an ICU”
If you could help those most critically ill with the novel coronavirus, would you? Employee and trained nurse Laura Gador jumped at the chance to volunteer at a hospital in Hamburg, Germany—and is sharing her hardships and triumphs, and what’s giving her strength.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has spread across the globe, one group of people, in particular, have stood out as true heroes: The nurses, doctors and other healthcare workers who’ve reported to the front lines day in and day out to help care for those who’ve become sick with the virus.
Many of those heroes work at Johnson & Johnson.
At the company’s German medical device company alone, Johnson & Johnson Medical GmbH, 80 employees have volunteered to take advantage of the company’s COVID-19 Medical Personnel Leave Policy, which enables medically-trained employees worldwide to take a paid leave to provide medical services and help diagnose, treat and contribute to public health support for COVID-19.
One such employee currently on the front lines is Laura Gador, 37, a Health Economics & Access Manager based in Hamburg, Germany. As the pandemic intensified, the former general nurse decided to dust off her scrubs and volunteer at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE), one of the largest hospitals in northern Germany.
Since May 4, she’s spent her days in the hospital’s ICU, tending to the sickest COVID-19 patients.
In the latest installment in our “Caring on the COVID-19 Front Lines” series of profiles of admirable employees, we sat down with Gador to learn more about what her life on the front lines has been like—the challenges, the blessings and how Johnson & Johnson nurtured and encouraged her desire to make a difference.
Laura Gador: On a recent Friday, I sat at the bedside of a woman ill with COVID-19. She was a transfer from a hospital in a different country that had exceeded its capacity. She’d been in the hospital for a very long time. Initially, her doctors weren’t optimistic about her survival, but we had recently begun to see progress. She was conscious, and struggling to understand what the doctors and nurses were telling her.
My heart went out to her: I could only imagine what it was like to wake up in a completely different environment where everyone is speaking a different language. I knew some of her native language, so I was able to build up a relationship with her. That day, I was about to leave for the weekend, but had decided to stop by for one last visit. She grasped my hand and pursed her lips as if to give me kisses. Still unable to do almost anything, including speak, it was her way of saying “thank you.”
That was a rewarding moment during my stint here as a nurse in the COVID-19 ICU. I had volunteered to work for the University Hospital Eppendorf after talking to a friend who works in an emergency department in Italy—then the epicenter of the epidemic. I wondered what I would do if this crisis ever affected Germany. It was clear to me that I wouldn’t be able to just sit around while people were needed to care for patients and run ventilators.
I discussed it with my husband, and he thought the same thing. Soon after I volunteered, Johnson & Johnson announced a new policy that allows qualified employees to use medical leave for this purpose. That was very helpful and made things much easier.
Although we don’t currently have a big wave of COVID-19 cases in Germany, I began training in May. The purpose of my stint is to learn how to work in those conditions so that when the second wave comes, which many officials are predicting, I’ll be well prepared.
Caring for the Sickest of the Sick
My first week on the job was more relaxed than I’d expected, but as time has gone on, it’s become quite tough. The ICU I’m working in is especially for patients for whom a ventilator isn’t sufficient anymore because their lungs are so damaged. These patients all require extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), which uses a machine to provide cardiac and respiratory support to give the lungs a rest. Most have other problems related to the virus, like kidney failure.
The most surprising thing I have found is the amount of care needed to support these patients. Even though the numbers of patients are low, our resources are sometimes stretched.
While the physical challenges of working in an ICU right now are intense, it’s been even more emotionally difficult seeing even young people severely ill.
In my unit, the nurses have to stay inside patient rooms even when they are not urgently needed. That’s because if we’re outside without our full protective gear on, there isn’t enough time to get dressed properly if an incident with a patient occurs. Here, speed is crucial: If the external oxygenation machine gets clogged, for example, you need to react in seconds to save the person’s life. We have regular breaks, but this means we’re inside the room for the whole shift wearing masks and full protective shields.
While the physical challenges of working in an ICU right now are intense, it’s been even more emotionally difficult seeing even young people severely ill. The younger someone is, the more life that person is losing, and the harder it is for us all to accept it. But I knew it would be this way, and I was prepared for it. There are also gratifying moments, when you realize your work is really making a difference.
It also upsets me to see the cavalier attitude some people take about the virus. I’ll be in a room with severely ill patients and hear people joking about COVID-19 on the radio. In Germany, we have not been affected as badly as people in other countries, so some people are not taking it as seriously as I think they should. They’re tired of all the restrictions. When you hear this, while seeing people suffer, it’s like being in an alternate reality.
Managing on the Home Front
I didn’t always want to be a nurse. I grew up in a small village in the southern part of Germany and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after school. But I wanted to have a job that would allow me to work in different countries, and I was drawn to the medical field. So I chose nursing and later worked in different countries and settings.
Eventually I decided to switch to the business side of healthcare, and got my MBA. I joined Johnson & Johnson four years ago as a health economist, which means that I make sure Johnson & Johnson medical devices get reimbursed by the German healthcare system, and train colleagues on health policy and economics. Along the way, I had my three children, ages 2, 5 and 6.
I disinfect myself completely at the hospital after my shift ends and before I come home. I do worry sometimes about infecting them, but we’ve taken all the necessary precautions, so the risk is low.
Fortunately my kids are too young to be concerned about the virus. We don’t want to scare them, so we tell them that it’s just a bad cold going around. They are just annoyed that it is not going away and that they can’t see their friends. But we won’t be in this situation forever and I know we will get through it.
All in all, I’m coping well. My team at work is really happy that I am helping out. This is one of the best things that has come up in the time I have been working for Johnson & Johnson. It makes me proud to work for a company that really does what it says in Our Credo: help support the communities in which we live and work, and the world community at large.
Every time I don my protective gear, I think of our company’s values, and it keeps me going.