Maureen Stefanidis walks into the building no later than 7 a.m. and considers herself lucky if she is headed home by 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. On weekends she returns to check on her staff and the patients they are working so hard to treat, to keep comfortable and, for some of them, to keep alive.
Downtime might be a few minutes in a tiny room set aside for nurses and other staff to find a brief moment of calm. But that’s it. Ms. Stefanidis, nurse manager of the Intensive Care and Progressive Care units at Peconic Bay Medical Center, has a staff of 58 to look after, and it’s a minute-to-minute, look-after-every-detail effort. She can’t let a moment go by where her foot isn’t firmly on the gas pedal.
“There are lot of details to look after and to make sure everything is going as smoothly as it possibly can,” she said, adding, “under the present circumstances.”
As hard as it is, it’s easy to say that we are here for the patients. It’s why we got into nursing in the first place. But I never thought I’d see anything like this. None of us did. “
The present circumstances at PBMC are 73 COVID-19 patients. That was the number Tuesday, the day she was interviewed about her work. The numbers change almost daily, as patients arrive from other Suffolk and Nassau County hospitals that have run out of ICU beds and have reached capacity.
What began in mid-March with one or two patients with confirmed cases of the virus quickly turned into a tidal wave. And, like the other professionals she works with, Ms. Stefanidis has no idea when the curve we’ve all heard so much about will begin to flatten.
“First there was one, then three, then five, then eight, then 10,” she said. “Every day there were more challenges for the staff. And each day was different. If one day it looked manageable, the next day I’d come in and there’d be 10 more patients.
“But, as hard as it is, it’s easy to say that we are here for the patients,” she adds. “It’s why we got into nursing in the first place. But I never thought I’d see anything like this. None of us did. It may never be like this again in my lifetime.”
Ms. Stefanidis, 43, came to PBMC in 1999 right out of nursing school at Suffolk County Community College; she later added advanced degrees to her toolbox. She grew up in Mattituck and went to high school next door to the hospital, at the now shuttered campus of Bishop McGann-Mercy High School. She can look over at her old high school every time she parks her car.
She is the mother of two daughters, Alexa, 20, and Briana, 17. Alexa is studying nursing at LIU Post in Brookville and wants to follow in her mother’s footsteps. For the mother, there was never any question as to career choice.
“I knew I wanted to do this when in elementary school on career day I dressed up like a nurse,” she said. “I always liked taking care of people.”
There is no average day in the ICU. In the age of pandemic, average is a memory. The ICU is not like any other part of the hospital. The virus has changed her life and the lives of the other nurses, doctors and staff and, as it has changed them, it also has fundamentally changed health care in America. Every day is new, every day is adapting to new challenges, new issues, new chaos.
“Before mid-March it was controlled chaos,” she said. “Now it’s keeping staff informed to make them safer. It is a lot of communication. As the volume of patients went up, the goal is to keep everyone calm, focused, and not upset, as we need to function and do our jobs. We wanted everyone to know we will do everything we can to keep them safe.”
One of the smart moves done at PBMC prior to the arrival of COVID-19 was to open a critical care unit with 16 new beds. That has turned out to be a godsend. “When people get sick with this virus, they get sick quickly,” she said. “It happens all at once. I can leave one day and there are beds open, and the next day there are no beds open.
“Presently — today [Tuesday] — we have 73 positives in the hospital. Not all are in the ICU. Those in the ICU are in respiratory distress. Every patient goes down a different path with this virus. Some people do really well, then overnight something changes. There is no book to read on how this virus progresses.
“Our focus every day is to give everyone a fighting chance,” she added. “And in those circumstances where someone is not going to make it, we go out of our way to make sure the patient dies a dignified death because, with this virus, their families cannot be with them. Some can FaceTime with their loved ones, and we will do everything we can to make sure that happens.
“We all want to see someone walk out of here. But you get the idea at some point who won’t. We keep all the families well informed.”
Thinking back to the young girl in third grade who dressed up as a nurse on career day, Ms. Stefanidis says she is grateful for the path she took. “Intensive care is where my heart is,” she said. “I am grateful to be caring for some of the sickest people. The people I work with are some of the most compassionate people, giving above and beyond.
“And look at how the community has responded. There are days when we are overwhelmed, and the community is dropping off food and coffee and snacks and cases of water.”
It was late afternoon when the interview ended. She looked at her watch, thinking out loud that she might be able to leave in the next few minutes. And there is tomorrow — and whatever it brings.
“We are not at the peak yet,” she said. “We are not there yet. The next week or two will bring more. The stress we are feeling now will get worse. But it will end. That’s what I tell my staff. It will end one day.”