More than a nurse

Zahra Garza - Everyday Extraordinary

A champion who led her team through a life-changing challenge

The medical team in the University Hospital unit known as 10 Sky usually cares for patients following surgeries. Patients who have had hip replacements, vascular surgery or prostate procedures - not patients with infectious disease.

However, when the hospital began planning for an expected surge in COVID-19 patients, the 10 Sky team knew their routine was about to change. Once the primary coronavirus unit reached capacity, 10 Sky would be in line to care for patients battling this new, sometimes fatal, highly contagious virus.

“Some staff were concerned,” remembers Zahra Garza, the executive nurse overseeing 10 Sky. “They had small children and family members sick with respiratory concerns. But most of our nurses just said: ‘we will do it.’”

“It” would be a challenging, life-changing experience for the nearly 110 nurses, technicians and support staff in Garza’s unit who take pride in being a family. It would be Garza’s job to make sure they were ready.

Preparing for the Surge

Garza began sending nurses from 10 Sky to the unit already caring for COVID-19 patients so they could learn how to protect themselves, prevent the virus from spreading and provide specialized care. The nurses practiced the series of steps they should take to suit-up in protective PPE. They learned how to limit time spent inside the rooms but still monitor the sick people who often struggle to take a deep breath.

Garza made sure 10 Sky had the extra supplies and additional equipment they would need. She sought to prepare her many young nurses for the emotional and physical toll that comes with caring for patients who are fighting for their lives.

COVID-19 Exploded

In June, almost overnight, 10 Sky was thrust into the front lines. The number of infected patients was exploding throughout Bexar County. The hospital was rapidly admitting them. Garza’s unit received four COVID patients the first day. On day two they had 15 infected patients and 30 the following day.

“It was like, Oh Lord, really? I didn’t know this would happen so fast,” Garza recalls.

Garza’s team put their recently learned safety techniques to work. They monitored their patients for signs that their conditions were deteriorating. They knew many of them had compromised lungs, so they closely watched their oxygen levels. They worked longer hours and extra days.

The new assignment also followed the staff home at night. They took extra care not to infect their families, and that sometimes made life a little lonely.

“I had my own room and I washed my dishes separately,” says Garza. “I did not see my granddaughter for two months, and I was dying to see my grandbaby.”

A Caring Presence

COVID brought death to the doorstep of 10 Sky. It was a new experience for many on the team. As a post-surgical unit, the staff saw nearly all of their patients go home. Some of their coronavirus patients did not recover. Garza found herself reminding the staff they could not save everyone, but they could be the caring presence each needed.

“We had patients who were scared. They didn’t want to talk. We would say, ‘You are not done. Whatever it takes, we will do it for you.’”

Garza remembers with pride, and a few tears, how first-year nurse Rachel Groven brought peace to one man during his final hours.

He knew he was dying. He didn’t want his family to see him in his deteriorated state, but he did not want to die alone. Groven stayed by the man’s bedside and held his hand for his final two-and-a-half hours. Garza could not have been prouder.

“Afterwards we went to the garden and I told her how proud I was to have hired her. I would want her there for my family.”

Garza initiated celebrations when COVID patients were discharged. She looked for opportunities to raise morale and boost the spirits of her staff.

At the end of August, 10 Sky discharged its last COVID-19 patient. Garza’s team celebrated a return to the work life they had known before. However, the chief nurse who has been taking care of patients for more than 20 years, says she is transformed. And she’s grateful for what COVID-19 has taught her.

“I have always loved my patients,” says Garza. Now I love them even more. They reminded me that life can be short and we must make the most of it.”

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