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A Brooklyn ICU nurse on why she doesn’t feel like a superhero

Editor’s Note: The subject of this interview, Maria Lobifaro, contacted us after the taping to say that she misspoke about the ratio of ICU nurses to patients in California. State law mandates a ratio of one nurse for every two ICU patients.

Maria Lobifaro is a nurse at a VA hospital in Brooklyn that has been converted to care only for coronavirus patients. Already, more than 30 deaths related to COVID-19 have occurred there. Lobifaro, a member of the largest union for registered nurses in the country, joins William Brangham to discuss how her job these days involves too little protection, too much risk -- and too many deaths.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As part of our continuing series with front-line health care workers, William Brangham spoke today with Maria Lobifaro. She's a nurse working at a VA hospital in Brooklyn, New York, that's been converted to care only for coronavirus patients.

    There's already been more than 30 related deaths there.

    Lobifaro is a member of National Nurses United. It is the largest union for registered nurses in the country.

    As you will hear, she says her job often comes with too little protection and support.

  • Maria Lobifaro:

    So, you know, every day is different.

    I have worked on a weekend where we were reusing the same gown from nurse to nurse, the same protective gown. So, when my shift finished, I had to pass that gown on to the next nurse. And then, the next day I came back to work, and we had gowns.

    So it's really been very touch and go. As far as staffing, I think that was one of the major issues that we had in the hospital, especially in the ICU.

    We just tripled our capacity overnight. So there was definitely weeks, I would say all of last month, where the ICU was really struggling, one nurse with five critical patients on ventilators. And that's a ratio that's really unheard of.

  • William Brangham:

    What's the ratio normally?

  • Maria Lobifaro:

    So, the only state that has an actual ratio is California. And they have a 1-to-1. And they have, like, laws protecting that ratio.

  • William Brangham:

    One to one, one nurse per…

  • Maria Lobifaro:

    To one patient.

  • William Brangham:

    And you guys are 5-1?

  • Maria Lobifaro:

    Yes.

    So, pre-COVID, generally, it was like two patients to one nurse. These patients are so much sicker than the average ICU patient. And now a nurse is dealing with five patients. So, at times — I mean, most of the time, it was really just unbearable.

    It was really to the point where a few of us had to actually put our foot down and refuse a sixth patient.

    So, it has been a struggle. As far as PPE, protective covering and protective gear, it's, like, lacking on the CDC level. If you do a simple Google Image search, Italy PPE, China PPE, and then look up USA PPE, it's — you don't need to be a nurse or a doctor or a medical professional to tell that our country is lacking seriously.

    I mean, in other countries, if you look at the health care infection rate, significantly lower than what the U.S. is at right now. And why is that? Like, other countries are in a full-on astronaut suit, where they don't have any part of their skin exposed.

    But yet, for the U.S., we're just in like a little thin paper gown. And, sometimes, you're reusing that gown. How many more medical professionals need to get sick or even die for them to realize that?

    But it's a serious problem.

  • William Brangham:

    That's got to be incredibly frustrating, because here you are, doing this lifesaving work, really. And the country is tasking you with helping stamp out this pandemic. And yet you obviously feel like we don't have your back in some substantive way.

  • Maria Lobifaro:

    Well, I mean, prior to this, we dealt with patients with infectious diseases all the time, you know, tuberculosis.

    And the things that we're doing today, if we did them then, we would be seriously reprimanded. And it's very discouraging, because I'm going into the room, not the head of the CDC. They're at home.

    And, you know, it's my skin that's exposed, not their skin. So, it's — it's been overwhelming, to say the least, I guess.

  • William Brangham:

    When you see all of the support, when people are clapping when there's a shift change, or people posting signs, what do you make of all of that support?

  • Maria Lobifaro:

    I'm very conflicted on that topic.

    So, part of me feels, you know, so proud that my city is supportive. So, I'm really overwhelmed by the support of the public.

    On the other hand, I'm just doing my job every day, a job that I have always done. An ICU nurse, you don't go into the field expecting to not see death. It's expected.

    But I think the amount that I have been seeing lately has been overwhelming, combined with the — just the public: You're a hero. You're a superwoman.

    It just really sets a — I guess, an unrealistic expectation of how I can perform at work.

    The other day…

  • William Brangham:

    Because you're not bulletproof.

  • Maria Lobifaro:

    Exactly. And I'm not a superhero.

    And if I was a superhero, I wouldn't have to make decisions every day, whose bedside do I stand at? Do I stand that the patient who has a heart rate of 20 right now and is probably going to die in the next 10 to 15 minutes?

    Or do I go to my other patient, who's — you know, went to the bathroom on themselves and, unfortunately, has been in that for two hours now, because I have just been so busy?

    So, if I was a superhero, I wouldn't have to make these decisions every day. You know, I couldn't feel as further from a superhero as I feel sometimes.

  • William Brangham:

    Well, maybe not a superhero, but you feel pretty close to one, to me.

    Thank you.

  • Maria Lobifaro:

    Thank you. Thank you so much.

  • William Brangham:

    Maria Lobifaro, thank you very, very much for your time, and thank you for all the work that you're doing.

  • Maria Lobifaro:

    Thank you. Oh, thank you so much. And I hope you stay safe, and you and your family as well.

  • William Brangham:

    You, too.

  • Maria Lobifaro:

    Thank you.

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