A Letter from the Road: A COVID-19 Crisis Nurse from San Quentin Prison Reports

A Letter from the Road: A COVID-19 Crisis Nurse from San Quentin Prison Reports

I’m doing laundry at a wash & fold in front of the house boats of Sausalito. Reminder: buy more scrubs. I’m one mile from from the hotel. Three minutes by car, 10 minutes by bicycle. The views are great. The weather is awesome. I could live here easy. Not on a house boat though.

They have a problem with the mating calls of some kind of small mud fish whose population has exploded. I guess it sounds terrible, like hammers on the hull all night long. Nature.

The hotel is a popular national chain brand in Mill Valley, gateway to Mount Tamalpais, and Muir Woods. It’s just north of San Francisco. I can just barely see Coit Tower. I’m maybe an hour and a half from my home so the commute would be brutal. The state is picking up the hotel tab thanks to a program authorized by the governor. It’s been a godsend.

The hotel is using the pandemic money to remodel. The room is nice, but there are sawzalls and hammers and loud Mariachi music playing during the day. At least I’m hardly ever there. They don’t clean the rooms as often because of the pandemic, but you can get fresh towels and coffee pods at the front desk any time.

The job is tedious, but not difficult. Basically, you make rounds on the prison population two times daily trying to root out COVID patients and separate them. I get there at 5:30 AM. There is a line to get through the gate. I have to sign four different log books in four different areas plus clock in with a time card.

We got a great tour of the prison on day one. The thing I remember the most is when the nurse educator guiding us said, “To everyone else they are prisoners, to us they are patients…all of them.” This dichotomy in mandates between prison staff and medical staff has allowed me to put the job neatly into my bailiwick. Nursing is nursing. The rest of it is for prison staff to handle.

The whole prison is on lock down. It’s quiet in the yards. It’s been grim. However there is hope. The numbers are improving. On my first day, there were over 1,300 patients in isolation. Two weeks later, the number is half of that. Everyone wears a mask. Infection control is taken seriously. Teams of nurses go out twice daily to assess the inmates. Other teams are doing COVID testing. Every staff member gets tested once per week. Cautiously, things are returning to a semblance of normalcy, whatever that means in a prison.

We pair up—an RN and an LVN—and grab our shoulder bag. Inside the bag is an IR thermometer, a pulse oximeter, a BP cuff, disposable PPE, alcohol wipes…sundries. When we get to our assigned area we put on the PPE and each team gets their own guard to keep them safe. “Don’t step into the cell, don’t put your face in front of the food port, don’t walk close to the cells…” Helpful advice and a sober reminder of the overlapping existence of prisoner and patient.

I’ve given careful thought to the nature of the job, the nature of crime and punishment, and the morally ambiguous task of providing competent health care to people who have committed terrible crimes. Thankfully, I’ve never followed crime stories. Having worked in the ER for many years, I’ve dealt exclusively with the aftermath of crime and the amelioration of its physical consequences…as best as can be done anyway. I have no curiosity about death row inmates. I can honestly say that I leave that at the door and look at each person strictly through the lens of health care. Having said that, I can tell from even the most cursory interactions with some of the patients that there are some seriously disturbed people within these walls. I’m happy to move along to lower level offenders.

From the ground, I can say the efforts to control the spread of COVID within the prison have been very successful. Again, I’m just the tip of the spear so the big picture is a little out of my view. But just judging from the numbers of patients I assess daily, things are improving very quickly. I guess that’s the benefit of working within a closed system…it was also that closed system that allowed the virus to spread so quickly in the first place, so there’s that. Wearing masks, social distancing, testing, contact tracing, quarantining…they have brought the cases of infection down so quickly that it’s possible that the job will end early. I’ll be sorry to leave. The pay is…generous.

The best part of the experience has been meeting new friends. Travel nurses are go-getters. I’ve met nurses from all over the world on this assignment. We share a common bond and have moved together from trepidation to confidence in this new role. We share stories in the break room and compare notes on our experience. Several nurses are staying in the same hotel that I am. It’s a great way to meet friends in our new socially isolated world. I hope that I have met lifelong friends here as I have on other contracts. The staff at the prison have been nothing but welcoming, same for my agency. A good experience from top to bottom.

The good news…or bad news depending on how you look at it, is that other prisons are experiencing similar outbreaks and will need COVID crisis teams to come in. There are already jobs being posted for other prisons in California. Susanville, San Lois Obispo, are two that I’ve seen. If you are interested in making some quick money, and are willing to shoulder some risk, I encourage you to contact a recruiter. The turnaround time for me was three days between first contact and clocking in. Be ready to move quickly. Have your documents together. The free hotel program is still in effect so your housing is covered. Stay safe out there.

Home Health in the Time of COVID-19

Home Health in the Time of COVID-19

The office is closed. The door is locked. If you need supplies, you make a request by email 24 hours in advance. Text when you get there and the supplies will be placed outside the door. Maybe by elves.

I’m in my car. The air conditioner is blowing. I’ve been waiting for 20 minutes for my bag of hand sanitizer, chucks, gloves, masks, gowns, booties, and various dressings and accouterments of wound care. My next case is across town and I’m not getting paid to sit around.

Across the parking lot is Regional Medical Center’s Emergency Room. They’ve closed the waiting room and put up tents in the parking lot with chairs placed well away from each other. I watch as people drive up to be tested for COVID-19 or to unload someone needing emergency care. A tech in full PPE walks out and waives a thermometer across the forehead…OK, next station. Such is medicine in the age of COVID-19.

My first “official” case of COVID-19 is a man in his early 60s. He shuffles to the door with a walker. His skin is hanging off of him in folds. He looks like one of those dogs with droopy flaps around his face. He got sick in February, a construction worker with a cold before we really got the news of a brewing pandemic. Three months he lived on a ventilator.  He points proudly to his tracheostomy scar. “It couldn’t kill me,” he says.

I say “official” because you never really know who may be contagious since so many people show no symptoms. I’m standing outside the door of his house at 2 pm on a hot California day wearing a yellow gown, a mask, face shield, blue gloves, and blue knee high paper boots that are making my feet itch like crazy. Sweat is dripping down my forehead onto my glasses and I can barely see a thing. Sweat is also dripping down my back and arms. I think my gloves are full of sweat. I should have drank more water.

He lets me into the house. There is no air conditioning. The windows are all open. The living room and dining room have been stripped bare for remodeling. There are boards piled up, things in boxes, a new floor. It’s going to be nice. He’s staying with his daughter while he recovers and he’s anxious to get back home but still too debilitated to take more than a few steps.

The home health start of care evaluation is 29 pages long—29 sweaty, hot pages. We are sitting on those cheap folding camp chairs. The only other furniture is a small fish tank on the mantle that needs water.  The pump is sucking air and making a sound like a jet engine. I rock the fish tank gently back and forth and get enough water to the pump that it starts working quietly again. He looks at me. The fish look at me. I sweat. I hope he’s not noticing the growing splatter marks on his new hardwood floors.

What should take 40 minutes takes 90 minutes. Each step of the way I’m double checking what the patient has touched. Did I give him this pen or that pen? I clean the BP cuff twice. Next time I’ll just leave it there. He’s not even shedding virus any more. He’s recovered. Not exactly spry, but he definitely has the air of a man who escaped the tiger’s den. He doesn’t even need oxygen. He’s a lucky dude. I tell him to buy a lottery ticket. One for me too. He laughs.

I ask him who is in the house and I document each person I come in contact with and what PPE I was wearing. It’s a new policy at our company. We document every person and what we were wearing. Let’s face it, sooner or later, one of us is going to come up positive and it will be the unpleasant job of someone in the office to call all of our recent contacts. I can hardly imagine how that conversation goes.

“You know the nurse that came to visit you? We are calling all of the people that she visited because she has COVID-19 and we want to ask you to get tested yourself and self isolate for 14 days.  Also everyone in the household and everyone they’ve come in contact with. Have a nice day.” I pray to God I’m not that one.

So I check everything twice, three times. My next patient is even sicker…and older. I can’t be the dark angel of death. I sanitize my hands again. I stagger out the front door and take off all the gear. Sweat is literally pouring off of me and off the inside of the slick yellow gown. My shoes are soaked. I take a moment to red-bag my PPE and wipe down the outside of my ditty-bag. I have an hour of paperwork to do on this guy. I have to call his doctor and get a verbal order for start of care. I have to drink a lot of water…I mean right now because my vision is getting grey around the edges. The blessed blessed AC is blowing cold in the car. Thank God for small favors.

This is the new normal. Everyone has to make changes. I don’t understand the resistance to wearing a mask that some people have. For some reason, someone in the highest office has decided that wearing a mask makes you liberal. The virus makes no such distinction. I don’t understand how wearing a mask to protect the people around you has any political significance at all. But there you have it—the new normal. Stay safe out there.

An Occupational Health Nurse’s First Day

An Occupational Health Nurse’s First Day

It’s my first day on the job as an occupational health nurse at one of the largest automobile factories in America. The Tesla Fremont factory encloses 5.5 million square feet and has around 15,000 workers on site at any one time. At the moment I’m hired, the factory is in overdrive to meet quotas and workers are pulling five twelve-hour shifts per week.

I’m overwhelmed by the factory floor. Spinning robots, automobile bodies on overhead assembly lines, herds of forklifts, and an incredible noise assaults my senses. The floors are covered with painted walkways, traffic safety barriers, and bollards to separate vehicles and pedestrians. Every 20 feet or so there is a sign on the floor stating “HEADS UP, PHONES DOWN” to encourage safety in this dangerous environment.

I’m working for a subcontractor. Tang and Company is a provider of occupational health services for 40 years serving such disparate industries as petroleum production, electrical generation, construction, and automobile manufacturing. They provide drug testing, respiratory mask fitting, employee health surveillance, safety education, and first aid services with the goal of keeping workers healthy and productive.

Most of my career has been in emergency room and ambulatory care. I feel well prepared for the clinical part of this job. I’m not so well prepared for some of the other functions. Fortunately, my employer has a well designed training program. I’m interested in the population health aspect. Mitigating the dangers in the workplace requires data. What are the injuries? How are they happening? What can be done to prevent them in the future? The benefits to the employees are obvious. Nobody wants to be injured on the job. The benefits to the employer include increased compliance with regulatory bodies and rules such as OSHA, FMLA, ADA, DOT, HIPAA, etc. The employer also enjoys decreased costs associated with insurance, lost production, potential fines, and the staggering expense of caring for the injured worker. In 2017, the cost of workplace injuries was $161.5 billion. This includes lost wages and productivity, medical cost, and administrative cost.

During my training period I’m instructed on how to perform routine workplace tests such as drug and alcohol testing, respiratory mask fitting, spirometry, and hearing tests. I work

Fast Facts about Occupational Health

  • Occupational health nurses work in a variety of settings to keep workers healthy and safe.
  • The typical occupational health nurse would be baccalaureate prepared and may have an advanced degree.
  • This nurse might enter the field with experience in community health, emergency room, critical care, or ambulatory medicine.
  • The American Board for Occupational Health Nurses, Inc. offers the following certifications for this specialty of nursing: Certified Occupational Health Nurse (COHN) and Certified Occupational Health Nurse-Specialist (COHN-S).
  • The professional organization is the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses.
  • There are certifications available for ADN-prepared nurses, BSN-prepared nurses, and advanced practice nurses wishing to enter the field.

closely with EMTs, Physician Assistants, LVNs, and ancillary personnel working to keep the clinic running. The EMTs are trained to respond to workplace incidents on the factory floor. They are ready at a moment’s notice to respond to medical emergencies in the vast reaches of the factory. Typical responses I’ve seen so far are falls, cuts, and even a heart attack. They respond with a shoulder carried first aid pack, oxygen, and an AED.

Medical care beyond first aid is provided by physician assistants on site or through a video conferencing system. The range of services is pretty broad. Management of repetitive motion injuries, evaluation and treatment of traumatic injuries, and referrals for non-occupational conditions are typical. The clinic is well stocked with equipment and supplies, an EKG machine, nebulizer machines, various notions and potions for symptomatic relief of sprains, headaches, and bruises. The goal is to keep the factory moving with healthy workers.

Each day is a new and interesting experience. My nursing skills are being used productively and I’m learning about this expanding and well-paying field of nursing.

Does My Patient Need a Geriatric Referral?

Does My Patient Need a Geriatric Referral?

Geriatrics is the medical specialty serving patients 65 and older. Usually multidisciplinary, the geriatric team may consist of primary care providers specializing in geriatrics, diabetes educators, psychologists, medical social workers, pharmacists, and support staff. The goal is to keep patients functional at their highest level throughout their elder years. This might mean the difference between a patient living independently, semi-independently, or in a skilled nursing facility.

Let’s say your next patient is a 75-year-old female admitted to the ER for confusion. Vitals are HR 98, BP 102/60, RR 20, SpO2 96, T 98 oral. The patient arrives by ambulance from home. Her clothing is wet with foul smelling urine. She is not oriented to person or place. Her affect is flat. Tenting is elicited on her hands. Skin is warm. You note she has lately been to the ER several times for falls and failure to thrive.

What to do for your patient? After the work up, the patient is diagnosed with a UTI and dehydration. Confusion is often seen in the elderly as the first sign of a UTI. Of course the foul smelling urine and new incontinence were the giveaway. This patient is going to need more than a course of antibiotics and fluid. Although she lives with family, the recent visits to the ER make it clear that the family is overwhelmed. A quick conversation with the daughter confirms this fact. You suggest a geriatric consult to the ER provider and she agrees.

Some inclusionary factors for a geriatric referral are age 65 and older, increased utilization of services, changing/increasing needs, decreased functioning, confusion or dementia, failure to thrive/weight loss, falls, and age related health problems. Our ER patient meets several of these criteria. If the patient has a PCP, coordination with that provider would be necessary. Geriatrics will often do a consult to see if the patient is the right fit. It looks like our patient and her family could use the services of a multidisciplinary team.

Active addiction/alcoholism, recent suicide attempt, acute psychosis, or untreated mental health issues would require different referrals. Substance abuse problems, active mental health issues, or suicide attempts would need to be addressed by addiction services and/or mental health services and the patient stabilized before geriatrics could assess age related changes to memory or dementia. These issues would cloud the clinical picture and make diagnosis of cognitive impairment impossible.

The geriatric primary care provider is part of an interdisciplinary team. Because of this, our patient will have access to a range of services that are can be outside of the ability of the primary care provider to manage. Having everyone under the same roof, steps away, using the same electronic record system, allows for an integration of care that would be impossible using outside specialists. Our patient will get a referral from the ER after the ER provider consults with the patient’s primary doctor if she has one.

The patient will be scheduled for a geriatric consult as soon as her condition has stabilized.

Meet the Geriatric Team

Dr. Nirmala Gopalan, MD, is the site manager for the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center Downtown Geriatric Clinic in San Jose, CA.

“On the patient’s initial visit, I’m looking for inclusionary factors. Does this patient need us? There are a lot of elderly patients whose health care needs are well met by their PCP. The ideal patient to come aboard our service meets the inclusionary factors, has a desire to onboard to our services, and is looking for quality of life, not just disease care.”

Ginny Estupian, PhD, is the geriatric clinic psychologist at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center and works closely with Dr. Gopalan. “My role on the team can be divided into two parts; providing individual therapy and neuropsychological evaluations.”

“When I conduct individual therapy, I focus on reducing troublesome mood symptoms such as depression and anxiety. I may focus on helping the patient cope with chronic health conditions that exacerbate their mood such as COPD, chronic pain, diabetes, and cognitive changes. I help the client understand the relationship between the sleep, pain, mood triad, and we focus on improving one or more of those areas. Mood symptoms can improve by learning coping skills, engaging in age-appropriate exercise, or simply processing how they feel about their overall health.”

“The second part of my role is conducting neuropsychological evaluations. I assess for changes in cognition that may occur due to Alzheimer’s disease, vascular disease, or other age-related conditions. Findings from neuropsychological testing are discussed with the multidisciplinary team, then discussed with the patient and family in order to coordinate ongoing care that meets the specific needs of each client.”

Carol Lee, PharmD, is a pharmacist for Santa Clara Valley Geriatrics Clinic. “The first thing I do with the new patient is go over the medication. I’m looking for appropriateness, contraindications, drug interactions, compliance…”

“I look at the patient in terms of the 5 Ms of geriatrics: Mind, Mobility, Medications, Multi-complexity, and Matters Most. Does the patient have dementia, cognitive decline, delirium, or depression? Can the patient tell me why he or she is on this medication? Is the patient an active participant in care or is someone else managing it? Age is just a number. Patients have a wide variability in ability. We don’t prejudge, we assess.”

“Can the patient navigate the pharmacy system? Are they having difficulty with refills or medication timing? Our pharmacy can set up automatic refills, home delivery, blister packs, and other services to assist our patients.”

“Another thing I asses for our patient population is herbal supplements. I educate them on the pros and cons of taking supplements and over the counter medications. The patient needs to weigh if they are getting benefit or detriment from them. I go over each one with them, looking for interactions.”

“Finally, polypharmacy has to be addressed. Some patients have been to many doctors over the years or have seen multiple specialties and they can have a lot of medication burden. Having the patient’s care totally within our system, on the same electronic charting system, and doing a medication reconciliation with each visit helps me to drill down to exactly what the patient is taking, what we can toss, and what we can keep. The patient has health goals, that’s what ‘matters most.’ The proper medicine, and nothing extra, is my job with the geriatric patient.”

Danette Flippin, MSW, MSG, also at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center Geriatric Clinic, looks at not just the whole patient, but at the patient’s support system.

“When assessing the new patient I always think in terms of biopsychosocial and spiritual assessment. Starting with the patient, I ask what is this patient’s level of functioning in the world? What are the physical, cognitive, emotional, and psychological abilities that allow this patient to address needs or to cope with challenges? What deficits are preventing healthy coping or access to health care, or engagement with community support?

“Simultaneously, as a medical social worker, I am looking at the patient’s environment and support systems such as family, friends, social/senior networks, church communities, etc. What is important to this person as they navigate the later stages of their life cycle, place meaning and address the existential questions and factors in their lives?

“When we look at an older adult, we are assessing the well-being of the caregiver as well. The patient and family centered approach is key to assessing, identifying problems, and integrating helpful, successful interventions. When all the information is in place I form a plan on how best to serve this person, not this person’s diseases.”

As we each progress through the stages of life, it’s good to know there are resources available. Not every elder patient needs the services of a geriatric specialty clinic, but the ones that do definitely get value. Don’t forget to evaluate your geriatric patients for specialized care.

Not a Parent’s Guide to Transgender Children

Not a Parent’s Guide to Transgender Children

I sprained my knee. That’s how I found out my 14-year-old daughter was struggling with her gender identity. I was combing the house for an ace wrap and found it in the dirty clothes basket in Karen’s room. It looked like it had been through a war. No elastic left. Karen had always been a tomboy. She wanted to mow the lawn, play with bugs, play sports…she was always moving and had zero interest in “girl stuff.” I took her to Claire’s in the mall a few times and she looked totally lost as I picked out headbands, earrings, and miscellaneous froufrou. I guess she was sending signals for years, but I wasn’t picking up the phone.

I don’t know how it dawned on me that she was binding her breasts. It just came to me and so I asked her, “Are you binding your breasts?” She started crying.

“I was born in the wrong body!” She said between racking sobs.

I’m ashamed to say it, but my first thought was, “Why me?” I took her to the pediatrician. She told me that this is just a phase. Karen is hanging out with the wrong people. Monitor her closely. Watch her friends. Ignore it and it will go away.

I was already pretty obsessive about who she hung out with. On play dates I would make sure I went in the house and met everyone involved. When I took her and her friends to the mall, I quizzed the friends about their home life and their grades. I thought I was doing everything right. Over the next year, our relationship deteriorated. I found marijuana, vape pens, bongs…she became a stranger to me. It was all yelling and grounding and taking the phone away. She didn’t do homework. She hated me. So much for the pediatrician’s advice.

I reached out to one of the pediatricians I had worked with and respected and asked him to recommend a doctor who worked with transgender teens. I made an appointment. Dr. Mitch spent an hour with Karen…without me in the room. When Karen came out of the appointment, a weight seemed to have lifted from her shoulders. Later, Karen told me the nurse had given her a shot to “make my period go away.”  I was beside myself. I called the office and demanded to speak with the doctor. My rights as a parent had been violated. How dare he give my child something without discussing it with me first. I wasn’t against the shot so much as being cut out of the decision.

Dr. Mitch called me back that afternoon and spent an hour on the phone with me. Can you imagine? An hour. He patiently discussed what Karen was going through and informed me that children over 12 can get birth control without parental consent. I had no idea. He explained that Karen had gender dysphoria: The constant feeling that her body was the wrong sex.  Karen had anxiety, anger, feelings of hopelessness, and diminished self-worth. My child was in pain. Thus, started my education in transgender children. I knew by now that it wasn’t a phase but, I have to admit, I was still hoping that it would go away.  My own feelings of self-worth had taken a hit, honestly. What kind of a parent was I? How could I let this happen?

WPATH (www.wpath.org) is the World Professional Association for Transgender Health and they write the standards of care for transgender health care. Dr. Mitch suggested I look over the information on the website and I did. It answered a lot of questions. Dr. Mitch assured me that there was nothing wrong with me and that Karen was always going to be my child. He suggested that if Karen wants to dress like a boy, it’s not permanent. He suggested I just back off and let her do what makes her comfortable. Of course, I was terrified that she would start taking hormones and have permanent changes that she would regret later. Dr. Mitch told me that Karen needs to live as a boy for a year and see a therapist every week to discuss her journey to make sure it’s the right thing. He wouldn’t prescribe hormones until Karen has been living as a boy for a year and his therapist signed off on the treatment.

Karen started seeing therapists who specialized in transgender teens. Insurance was a constant battle. The quality of the therapists was spotty. Karen, now Tony, was angry and impatient. He wanted testosterone now, now, now. He went to group meetings with other transgender teens and I think he saw how many of them struggled with no parental support. I remember seeing a young boy with long lanky hair and a defeated demeanor at a couple of his pizza party groups. I saw him, or her I should say, walking there and walking home. I really felt sad for this kid who wanted to be a girl so much. Tony told me the girl was grinding up DVDs and eating them because she heard the plastic works like estrogen. I really felt terrible for her. I determined that I was not going to be like her parents. However, I was not going to let Tony make any irrevocable decisions until we both were sure this was the way forward.

That year was a bit of a blur. Lots of appointments, Tony being angry. Kids and teachers at his school wouldn’t get with his name change and preferred pronoun. I blew it myself many times. I was so used to Karen, my daughter…not Tony my son. Problems at school came to a head and Tony pulled out of high school in favor of going to an alternative school. Things got better and worse, better and worse. I was at my wits’ end. All Tony wanted was to be seen by others as he saw himself, as a boy, not a girl. He bought some binders online and that worked, but they were uncomfortable and over time, left him bruised and misshapen. His girlish hips and curvy legs were problematic.

When he finally got the go ahead to start testosterone, he was so excited. Looking back, I think he thought that once he started hormone therapy, he would magically change into another person. It wasn’t like that. He still had problems with his old friends misgendering him. He still was behind in school. He still had all his old problems. That first year was the angry year. From my perspective, things got worse once he started testosterone. The doctor assured me that it wasn’t the hormones, it was just teenage angst. Tony went from twice a month dosing to once a week, halving the dose. I don’t know if that made things better or worse or didn’t do anything. I was scared, Tony was miserable.

Over that first year of testosterone, Tony gradually got more stable. I guess it was probably two years all in all before Tony got the body he wanted…or close enough that he can live with it. He’s 18 now and looks very boyish. He doesn’t bind his breasts anymore, but he does hunch his shoulders and tape his nipples flat when he goes out. We’ve discussed top surgery and I think the conclusion is that he can live with a small chest for now. There’s no talk of bottom surgery. I think Tony is finding a new middle ground between being a boy and being a girl. I tell him he doesn’t have to be binary, either/or. He can just be himself and I’m cool with whatever that self is. He is OK with being a boy with breasts. I know that given a choice he would choose not to have them. However, for now, the discomfort and risks of surgery are not worth the benefit.

Being a teenager is difficult in the best of circumstances. Tony is an adopted immigrant from Vietnam with a white single gay parent and born in the wrong body. Is it a surprise that his teen years were stormy? Not really. Tony worked all summer long at Chipotle and saved up his money. He bought his own car. He works two jobs. He’s smart and responsible. He’s good with money. He’s still afraid of school. He was tormented in high school and I think he has a lot of anxiety about going to college. I gently nudge him, but there is no hurry. He’s just about as perfect a person as I’ve ever seen. The trauma of those years of his transitioning is with us both, but gradually fading. I’d say he is a success story. He’s my son.