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When coronavirus hit, nurse Patricia Rojas remembered her Dominican mother's words

As she treated the terrifying surge of COVID-19 patients, Rojas remembered her Dominican mom's adage, to look out for neighbors and "take care of each other."
Image: Patricia Rojas.
Patricia Rojas.Daiana Ruiz / for NBC News

When the coronavirus struck New York City in March, businesses shut down, Broadway shows closed, and thousands of residents fled the city or sequestered themselves inside their homes.

Patricia Rojas went to work.

Rojas, 31, a registered nurse, worked inside a tent temporarily set up outside the emergency department at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center as the city dealt with the overwhelming number of patients. "The circumstances were so difficult, and no one had ever been through anything like this before," Rojas said.

It was a lesson from her mother that helped her cope with the unprecedented situation.

Rojas, who is of Dominican descent, grew up in Washington Heights, a predominantly Latino neighborhood in northern Manhattan. "When I was a kid, my mom used to cook dinner for my sisters and me and then make extra food to share with our friends and neighbors in the building," Rojas said. "She used to say: 'You have to look out for your neighbors. We take care of each other.'"

Rojas took her mom's words to heart as she assessed patients, treated their symptoms and educated them about the risks associated with COVID-19.

"All the stress, all the hours, reminded me of why I became a nurse. I was proud to serve my community," Rojas said. She pointed out that this year, for the 18th year in a row, nurses ranked the highest in a Gallup poll of which professions Americans view as most ethical and honest.

Rojas was recognized this year by the National Association of Hispanic Nurses for her excellence in serving New York City's Hispanic community.

Nurses, Rojas said, learn how to balance empathy with the delivery of care to treat their patients effectively and safely. "It was hard, though. Sometimes, you would get attached to patients or see them in the tent, and then later — they were just not there."

New York City was the first major metropolitan area in the U.S. hit by the pandemic, and its experience foreshadowed the disproportionate impact the virus has had on Latino communities nationwide.

Since March, according to the city health department, Latinos have been the racial/ethnic group with the highest rates of coronavirus cases and deaths in New York City. City data showed that Hispanics accounted for 5,865 confirmed coronavirus deaths as of Sept. 3 and 1,269 probable coronavirus deaths. The numbers are likely to be undercounts, as some experts say COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes and among undocumented immigrants have not been properly recorded.

For Rojas, the pandemic was a reminder of how structural inequalities in the U.S. health care system affect working-class, immigrant and lower-income populations. "I hope that, going forward, we can look at and address some of the existing disadvantages, the barriers to care, that some people face. This could be a way for us to create positive change and mitigate such inequities in the future," she said.

At the height of the pandemic, Rojas was moved by the outpouring of support from New Yorkers for health care workers and first responders. The nightly "clap outs," when quarantined residents stood at their windows, on their balconies and on their front porches to applaud workers, were especially touching.

"It reminded me of the strength and beauty of our city," Rojas said. "Once, I was coming from work in uniform, and a lady stopped me on the street and thanked me so profusely. It was strange — and nice — to be treated this way for just doing my job."

As the city's coronavirus infection numbers have dropped, Rojas has made the transition back to working with patients at NewYork-Presbyterian's Washington Heights family practice. But the COVID-19 outbreak has only solidified her calling to be a nurse.

"This pandemic has taught me to cherish people and experiences around me," she said. "But most importantly, it reminded me of why I became a nurse. I became a nurse because I wanted to help people in the most vulnerable moments of their lives — and that is something I will never take lightly."

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