An ICU leader digs in
Anahiz Correa remembers the first time COVID became real.
It was early March. A shuttle bus driver from LAX arrived at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital (MLKCH) Emergency Department complaining of symptoms similar to a strange new virus.
The hospital’s clinical staff had trained for weeks for this moment and yet it was still unnerving. Doctors and nurses congregated outside the glass paneled doorway to the patient’s isolation room, discussing safety protocols as they carefully donned isolation robes, gloves, and thick N-95 face masks.
Anahiz is an Intensive Care Unit Nurse Manager in the hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU) where she leads a team of nurses. “Seeing my nurse in the full PPE (personal protective equipment) and the patient being unsure and looking around, I thought to myself: This is real. This is not just some flu,” Anahiz recalls. “At that moment we all got a little nervous.”
It was the start of the most challenging period of patient care ever faced by the five-year-old hospital. In March, one of the busiest Emergency Departments in all of Los Angeles transformed into a highly-efficient COVID treatment center. Huge triage tents rose outside the ED doors. MedSurg/Tele rooms on the 5th floor were repurposed into low-flow isolation rooms. The ICU doubled in size.
COVID isn’t over but Anahiz’s nervousness is. She’s seen her team perform magnificently over the past five months, caring for the sickest of the sick, finding innovative solutions to the increased workload while keeping their own fears and anxiety in check.
This is why Anahiz decided to help lead the annual employee giving campaign, MLKCH Gives. If the COVID crisis has shown her anything, it’s that this is a hospital, a team, and a mission worthy of support.
“Look at all the stuff we’ve done, what we’ve overcome with this pandemic,” Anahiz says. “Now is not the time to back off—it’s a time to dig your feet in and stay strong. Because now more than ever our community needs us.”
It’s that community—South Los Angeles—that attracted Anahiz in the first place. As a new graduate of UCLA’s prestigious School of Nursing, she initially worked at a large, nearby hospital. She loved the collegiality and reward of intensive care nursing but was less enamored of the big-institution culture.
“I felt like just a number,” she says.
A fellow nurse told her about a new community hospital in a majority Latinx and African American community.
“It was a chance to be there for a community that looks like me, speaks like me,” says Anahiz, who grew up in a Spanish-speaking household in Norwalk and spent summers with her grandparents in Mexicali. “And then I fell in love with the vision of what MLKCH was trying to do.”
That vision was to bring exceptionally high-quality healthcare to one of the most medically-underserved communities in the nation. It was to build clinics and staff them with people like her—highly trained and passionate about improving the health of South LA.
Although MLKCH was a small hospital compared to her previous employer, the work was more challenging.
“I was surprised at the acuity,” Anahiz says. “People were coming in pretty sick but that also gave us opportunities you don’t get at bigger hospitals.”
For example, ICU nurses at MLKCH manage their patients’ dialysis directly—a procedure that requires considerable training and skill. During the COVID crisis, the need for more ICU nurses propelled Anahiz’s team to start an innovative cross-training program with nurses from other departments. That “team nursing” approach is now being institutionalized as a formal training program.
Nurses also ritualized a daily “virtual visitation” for COVID patients to communicate with their family members by video.
“Families are a huge part of what makes patients get better,” Anahiz says.
She notes that the virtual visits have also helped nurses cope with their stress—“It’s very emotionally draining to see our patients so alone.”
Innovating through a crisis is not easy. But it is that spirit of innovation, teamwork, and mission that keeps Anahiz engaged and connected. It’s what she hopes will also engage and connect her MLKCH colleagues to the MLKCH Gives campaign, which supports (among other things) training and education for clinical staff.
Investment in staff will help MLKCH cope with what may be a second wave of COVID. It’s also, Anahiz says, a testament to how much has already been accomplished.
“I’ve always donated. I always give because I think—if we are able—we need to believe in ourselves, invest in ourselves, and share.”