'My second life': California nurse walks out of hospital after 8-month COVID-19 ordeal

By Steve Gorman
LONG BEACH, Calif. (Reuters) - A seasoned intensive care nurse whose job it is to care for the most critically ill patients at her Long Beach, Calif. Hospital, Merlin Pambuan was aware of the deadly devastation caused by COVID-19 the human body can do.
Last spring, Pambuan became one of these patients in a tragic role reversal. She has been admitted to the intensive care unit at St. Mary Medical Center, her workplace, for the past 40 years, where she was knocked unconscious by paralysis-inducing sedation and placed on a patient's ventilator to breathe. A feeding tube was added later.
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She came close to death several times, as her doctors later revealed. At one point, her condition was so severe that end-of-life options were discussed with her family.
When she woke up and was able to breathe on her own again, she was too weak to stand. But she struggled and struggled through weeks of painful therapy to regain her strength and flexibility. In late October she celebrated her 66th birthday in the acute rehabilitation ward of St. Mary.
On Monday, Pambuan beat the chances of her eight month ordeal by walking out the hospital front door and receiving cheers, applause, and amusement from colleagues in the lobby for her release.
"This is my second life," Pambuan said shortly before as she prepared to leave her hospital room, accompanied by her husband Daniel, 63, and their daughter Shantell, 33, an aspiring social worker, who spent months at her mother's bedside had spent as her patient lawyer and personal cheerleader.
The spectacle of Pambuan walking slowly but confidently through the hospital lobby - she had insisted on getting out of the car without the help of a wheelchair or walking aid, although she was still connected to oxygen - was a transformative victory for the small, but tough nurse in intensive care.
The affection she received from colleagues - including many of the doctors, fellow nurses, and therapists who participated in her care - also reflected a rare moment of shared triumph for the pandemic-weary hospital staff.
"This is what we live for ... when our patients go home alive and in good condition," said Dr. Maged Tanios, pulmonologist and intensive care doctor in St. Mary. He said Pambuan's recovery was particularly rewarding as she was part of the hospital's extended "family".
Tanios said he was unaware of any other St. Mary medical staff admitted to intensive care because of COVID. However, studies show that frequent, close contact by frontline health workers with coronavirus patients puts them at higher risk of contracting the disease, which is why the decision to make them the highest priority when it comes to immunization.
Pambuan's layoff, ironically, coincided with the recent rollout of COVID-19 vaccines for medical workers, as well as a surge in coronavirus infections that have overwhelmed hospitals, and especially intensive care units, across California. (Graphic: https://tmsnrt.rs/34pvUyi)
Pambuan said she had no memory of the four months she spent on a breathing apparatus - from early May to early September - but remembered the first time she woke up from a deep calm that her extremities could not move.
With the encouragement of the nurses and her daughter, Pambuan said she was determined to regain her mobility and life.
"I said, 'No, I'm going to fight this COVID,'" she said. "I start moving my hand (and) a physical therapist comes and says, 'Oh, you move your hands,' and I said, 'Oh, I'm going to fight, I'm going to fight. I'm,' I'm trying to wiggle my toes will fight against it. '"
Pambuan spent the final months of her hospital stay in physical and respiratory rehabilitation and will continue to recover from home while making peace with a change, she said.
"It's going to be very difficult for me," she said. "But I have to accept that I get oxygen for a while and slow down a little."
When or if she will work in the intensive care unit again is open, she said.
Meanwhile, Pambuan said she was indebted to her staff for their "really professional" care, grateful for the support of loved ones, and re-convinced of the power of optimism.
Her message to others in their shoes - "Don't lose hope. Just fight. Fight because look at me, you know. I'm going home and I'm going."
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Long Beach, California; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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