When Merlin Pambuan awoke in September after four months hooked up to a breathing machine that helped keep her alive, the ICU nurse sickened with the novel coronavirus was comforted knowing her life was in the hands of her colleagues, treated at the same hospital she had worked at for 40 years.
But she still could not feel her extremities following a deep sedation that started in May, shortly after she had contracted the virus while treating covid-19 patients in the early stages of the pandemic at St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach, Calif. As first reported by Reuters, the nurse could not remember anything about a period in which she had come close to dying “multiple times,” according to her doctor.
This week, doctors and nurses who have been pushed to their limits in a part of Southern California ravaged by the pandemic received a rare piece of good news: Pambuan had recovered from covid and was leaving after being hospitalized for eight months fighting the virus.
The 66-year-old was met by dozens of cheering, masked co-workers as she walked down the hallway at St. Mary on Monday, an emotional scene on a day her family and physician were uncertain would come.
“I’m thankful,” Pambuan said to Reuters. “This is my second life.” She added, “Don’t lose hope. Just fight.”
The nurse’s recovery, which has been celebrated on social media this week, offered a much-needed, feel-good moment at a time when more people in the United States are being hospitalized with the coronavirus than at any other point during the pandemic. Nearly 120,000 covid patients nationwide were receiving inpatient treatment as of Wednesday, the second consecutive record-setting day, according to data tracked by The Washington Post.
The situation is particularly dire in Long Beach, where daily cases have exploded by more than 1,000 percent in recent weeks. Following two record days of covid deaths in Long Beach, the city on Wednesday activated a “mass fatality” plan to support morgues that are close to capacity.
At St. Mary, the hospital is so full that some patients are being treated in the ambulances that brought them there, the Long Beach Post reported. Other patients are in beds lining the hallways, and nurses have seen almost three times as many people as usual, according to the newspaper, amid a period that was described by one hospital official as “extremely busy.”
“The covid crisis in Long Beach is not getting better; it’s getting worse,” Democratic Mayor Robert Garcia, who lost his mother and stepfather to the virus, said in a news conference Wednesday. “We have to just recognize that we are living through the biggest challenge we have ever faced as a community and a city.”
The crisis was felt early on by Pambuan, a hospital veteran who was treating some of the most critically ill patients at St. Mary when she tested positive in the spring. A paralysis-inducing sedation resulted in the ICU nurse needing both a breathing tube and a feeding tube, according to Reuters. Pambuan was in such bad shape that Maged Tanios, a pulmonary and critical care medicine specialist at St. Mary, floated end-of-life options to her family.
“At multiple times, she was very near death,” Tanios said. “I would say this happened at least a half-dozen times.”
Though she regained consciousness in early September, a grueling physical and respiratory rehabilitation program awaited Pambuan to help her move arms and legs that had been immobile for months. While the task was daunting, the 66-year-old said she refused to back down from taking control of her life again.
“I said, ‘No, I’m going to fight this covid,’ ” she said, reported Reuters. “I start moving my hand [and] a physical therapist come and say, ‘Oh, you’re moving your hands,’ and I said, ‘Oh, I’m going to fight, I’m going to fight. I’m trying to wiggle my toes. I’m going to fight it.'”
Her extended hospital stay for most of the year is another example of the thousands of patients recognized as “long-haulers,” who continue to suffer the consequences of covid months after they were infected. While doctors are still uncertain as to why this is the case, public health experts have noted it’s increasingly clear that many people are bound to face long-term effects of the coronavirus.
When the time came to leave the hospital this week, the ICU nurse would not use a wheelchair or walker to exit. She would walk slowly, but walk nonetheless, determined to thank her colleagues on her own terms.
As her colleagues applauded Pambuan and recorded the moment on their phones, the nurse located and embraced Tanios, the physician who knew how close she came to not making it.
“This is what we live for,” the doctor said. “This is what makes us go through this pandemic and these difficulties . . . for the results of seeing our patient going home alive and in good condition.”