Sherry Chavez calls it cumbersome. It’s also hot, and the warming weather in Houston doesn’t help.
But wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) – such as masks, face shields, gloves and medical gowns – often is a requirement at work. It has been since March, when COVID-19 was in the early stages of making its way around the region.
Chavez, a longtime Garden Oaks resident, is a nurse at Houston Methodist Emergency Care Center near the intersection of the Southwest Freeway and Kirby Drive. She said she has regularly encountered patients with symptoms of COVID-19, the infectious upper-respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus strain, and has grown accustomed to suiting up in PPE.
“You wonder in your mind, ‘Are you completely covered?’” Chavez said. “It has to be done, because we don’t really know exactly what we’re dealing with.”
Chavez said some of the sick people who have come to her ER during the last two months are tested for COVID-19, treated and sent home. Those with more severe symptoms, such as fever and shortness of breath, are sent to Houston Methodist’s facility in the Texas Medical Center.
As of Wednesday morning, the disease had infected at least 5,100 people in Houston and Harris County and caused 79 deaths. According to the World Health Organization, there have been more than 2.4 million cases of COVID-19 across the globe, with it leading to more than 163,000 deaths.
“It’s mean and it’s nasty,” Chavez said. “It’s out there and it wants to take a few lives.”
But helping people, particularly those who are ill, is a big part of Chavez’s life as she’s been an ER nurse for three decades. So relinquishing that role is not something she’s considered, even though going to work during a pandemic puts her and her family at risk.
Chavez’s husband, Manuel, is a retired EMS chief with the Houston Fire Department. They have four children – Conner, Garrett, Holley and Racquel.
“They’re a family of first responders,” friend and neighbor Shellye Arnold said. “They sort of have community service built in to their DNA.”
The thought of bringing the coronavirus home is an ongoing concern for Chavez, who is careful when she returns from a shift. She and her other family members take Halls Defense lozenges every day to load up on Vitamin C in an attempt to fortify their immune systems.
Chavez said she wants to visit her mother who lives about 90 miles away, but she’s worried about potentially infecting her.
“I’ve been in the ER for 30 years,” she said. “I’m hoping and praying that in all of that time, I’ve developed pretty good immunity.”
Chavez said she no longer watches the news, which is saturated with COVID-19 coverage. She has seen enough of the disease up close to know it’s dangerous as well as deceiving.
She said she’s been told that COVID-19 is airborne, she’s been told that it spreads through respiratory droplets when infected people cough and sneeze, and she’s been told that it spreads through contact with inanimate objects that have contacted the virus. Chavez said she’s witnessed a wide range of symptoms, including headaches and diarrhea along with the more common symptoms of fever and cough. She also said the nasal swab that’s often used to test for COVID-19 is painful.
Chavez is willing to share her knowledge with those in her Garden Oaks community, having told neighbors they can call her or text her if they have questions or concerns. As deadly as the disease has been, many more have recovered from it.
“Don’t deny your symptoms,” Chavez said. “Don’t get to the point where you’re too sick and we can’t help you.”
Helping others is a calling for Chavez, who continues to do so even though it puts her in danger. More than 20 of her Garden Oaks neighbors recently let her know how much she’s appreciated, gathering outside her home before dawn to give her a rousing sendoff as she left to go to work.
Members of her community made signs and posters showing their support, cheered for Chavez and provided food for her, her family and her co-workers. Chavez said she was “totally humbled” by the experience, but it didn’t necessarily make her more motivated to report to work.
She was going to show up anyway, ready to put on her PPE.
“This is my job. This is what I do,” Chavez said. “I don’t expect anyone to say thank you for being a nurse or what have you. I just do my job because I enjoy it.”