Los Angeles nurse Monica Escobar treats the coronavirus 'that knows no boundaries'

"We've seen so many lives lost, so many families hurting," said the registered nurse of Guatemalan and Mexican descent. "But not coming to work is not an option for me."
Image: Monica Escobar.
Monica Escobar.Daiana Ruiz / for NBC News
By Raul A. Reyes

When Monica Escobar leaves for work each day, it has become routine for her to say goodbye to her husband and children as if she were not going to come back.

"That sounds dramatic, but it is the reality we are living," said Escobar, a registered nurse in the intensive care unit at Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center. "The reality is I might leave home and then somehow get exposed to COVID-19 and have to isolate, or even get COVID and then not come back."

Escobar, 47, was inspired to study nursing after her sister was hospitalized and nearly died. A nurse took such good care of her sister that Escobar asked where she went to nursing school. She told Escobar about the LAC+USC School of Nursing (now College of Nursing and Allied Health), and Escobar went on to study there herself. She obtained her bachelor of science degree in nursing at Azusa Pacific University.

Nothing in Escobar's training fully prepared her for the coronavirus pandemic. "Never in a million years did I think that something like this would happen," she said. "The training we get, whether it is dealing with someone with sepsis or someone who has been in a major accident, generally has a goal of getting people better and letting them go home. There is a concrete outcome that we work towards: to watch someone go home. With this, it is like there is no end."

In Los Angeles County, the Latino community has been hit the hardest by the coronavirus. Latinos account for 60 percent of the county's COVID-19 cases and 48 percent of its coronavirus deaths. Latinos in Los Angeles are twice as likely to catch the coronavirus as their white neighbors. Experts say Hispanics in Los Angeles are at disproportionate risk for COVID-19 because many are essential workers, use public transportation and live in densely populated areas.

Escobar has seen the reality behind the statistics.

"It is extremely hard sometimes. It takes a toll on you as a person," she said. "Sometimes you feel a sense of guilt when you are the only person with a patient because their family is not allowed to be there. It can make you feel like you took that from the family, being the last person to talk to their loved one, the last person to see them, the person to hear them say, 'Please, don't let me die.'"

To connect with families who cannot be with their loved ones, Escobar will use her phone, apps or other devices to let family members visit with one another.

One time, Escobar had a patient in his 70s who missed his children and grandchildren so much that he stopped eating. After getting permission from his doctor, Escobar got her patient some frijolitos (beans) and chicken enchiladas. Then she FaceTimed his relatives on an iPad while they were having lunch so the family could share a virtual meal.

"I just held the iPad and stood off to the side, and it was like they were all together," Escobar said. "I don't have words to express how happy I was to see him happy."

With her hospital situated in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Boyle Heights, Escobar feels fortunate to be fully bilingual.

"Our community is very loving, and being able to speak Spanish makes a big difference," she said. "I am grateful to God that my parents raised me to be strong in my culture. When you can speak the same language as the patient's family, it elevates the sense of trust. It lets people who might be scared know that I am here, I can help them, I am just like them."

Escobar, who is of Mexican and Guatemalan descent, typically works 12-hour shifts several days a week. During the pandemic, however, she has had to be available for extra shifts.

Escobar said her faith has helped her cope. At times, she visits the hospital chapel to renew her spirit. "This virus is very vicious. It knows no boundaries. It doesn't discriminate against anybody," she said somberly. "So sometimes I need to rely on my faith."

Even in her low moments, Escobar remains committed to caring for others.

"I've asked myself if I can keep going emotionally. We've seen so many lives lost, so many families hurting," she said. "But not coming to work is not an option for me. I have skills that are important to this hospital, so I don't have the luxury of thinking about just me. There is work to be done, and I need to be present. I need to be here."

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