PASSAIC, NJ — Inside St. Mary’s General Hospital in Passaic, everything has changed.
That sentiment rings extraordinarily true for Kerri Burghardt, a liaison nurse for the geriatric program who has spent her days not in a white lab coat visiting nursing homes — as she usually does — but instead in a triage tent outside of the hospital examining patients with symptoms of the new coronavirus.
That is, she did that until she caught the COVID-19 virus.
Talking to Burghardt, it’s almost as if she sees things “before” and “now.”
For example: Before the coronavirus crisis, she arrived at work at 9 a.m. every day, donned a white lab coat and did little hands-on nursing. Now, she’s working in St. Mary’s emergency room after recovering from the virus. “There’s not a typical day anymore,” she said.
Before, she hugged and kissed her daughters regularly. Now, they ask, “Mommy, when is this going to be over? I really want to kiss you.”
But the virus upended more than just her role at the hospital. When she fell ill with COVID-19, her whole life changed.
Burghardt said it started about a month ago, after she finished a weekend shift in the emergency room triage tent. She worked Saturday and Sunday, then was off Monday and Tuesday.
The day before returning to work, Burghardt said, she began to feel “flushed and just kind of off.” She took her temperature, but the thermometer said she had no fever — at first.
“Within 30 minutes, I went from not having a fever to having like 99.3,” she said. “I checked it not 15 minutes later …. It went from like a 99.3 to about 102 within 15 minutes. I’ve never had a fever spike like that before, ever.”
Burghardt said she immediately made arrangements to send her daughters, ages 4 and 10, away.
“Having them leave and not knowing the next time I would see them is the hardest thing I’ve pretty much ever had to do,” she said. “My 10-year-old was very upset. She was scared.”
Burghardt said her symptoms ran the gamut for COVID-19, ranging from fever to fatigue and beyond.
“I had every single thing you could possibly think of as far as being symptomatic,” she said. “I went from having fever to coughing a lot to horrible back pain to … really bad diarrhea.”
Burghardt said she was short of breath and had terrible back and muscle pain, leaving her unable to do much other than stay in bed and rest. About nine days after she began feeling ill, she also lost her senses of taste and smell, and she became dehydrated.
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Burghardt recovered after 16 days, and she has been cleared to return to work. Now, she said, a typical day no longer exists, and she spends time before each shift steeling herself for what the day holds.
“You put on your PPE [personal protective equipment], you say a little prayer before you start working, and you hope for the best,” she said. “I know when I leave that I did my best, I took care of who I could, and it’s in God’s hands at this point.”
Going back into the hospital is scary for a litany of reasons. Burghardt doesn’t want to infect her daughters or get sick again. Still, she is returning to work with hope and a sense of duty.
“I couldn’t have imagined not being able to help my hospital family during the pandemic,” she said. “There is no way I would have ever said no to it, ever.”
Since the pandemic reached New Jersey, one thing stands out as the most difficult challenge Burghardt has faced.
“I haven’t kissed my daughters in over three weeks,” she said. “My 4-year-old asked me, ‘Mommy, when is this going to be over? I really want to kiss you.’ I think my heart broke into like 100 pieces. I can’t hug them. I can’t kiss them. I barely go near them.”
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Vanessa Warner, a spokesperson for St. Mary’s, told Patch the hospital has enough personal protective equipment for each day, but it’s “always on the edge” of running out.
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To supplement its current supply, the hospital is accepting donations of plastic isolation gowns, gloves, hand sanitizer and masks.
“We will gratefully accept any of those,” Warner said. “I think the plastic gowns are the most important, but they’re the most difficult to source.”
Anyone wishing to make a donation to the hospital is asked to email Warner at email@example.com.
For now, Burghardt said, she’s staying the course with the support of her colleagues and her community.
“We are a family, and I have never been more grateful to be a nurse and to have a job than I am right now,” she said.
As of Wednesday morning, 6,438 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in Passaic County, and 156 people had died from the illness.
Passaic County is among the areas hardest hit by the new coronavirus and is led only by Bergen, Hudson, Essex and Union counties.
On Tuesday, the New Jersey Department of Health announced that Bergen County had confirmed more than 10,000 cases of COVID-19. There, the virus has taken the lives of 550 people.