Hindy Bogner-Orenstein has been a nurse for 37 years. But she’s never seen anything as dire as the COVID-19 units where she’s worked intermittently over the last year.
Nothing about Bogner-Orenstein’s pandemic deployments has been easy. From working 12-hour shifts for two weeks or more without a day off to seeing so many patients die day after day, often alone.
“It’s very tragic how people really suffered during COVID,” she said. “A lot of people had to make hard choices and they were by themselves. We could bring in these video monitors where they could chat with a family member, but that’s not the same. I would watch the patient’s oxygen saturation because sometimes it would go really low as they’re trying to talk.”
Once a patient went on a ventilator, she said, “They usually never come off. And because everyone is so overworked, we don’t have time to sit with a patient, hold their hand.”
A Potomac resident and member of Beth Sholom Congregation, Bogner-Orenstein, 58, volunteers through National Disaster Medical System, which organizes emergency response medical teams to respond to disasters.
Since early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Bogner-Orenstein has been deployed to numerous sites around the United States, including the 1,000-bed temporary hospital built in March 2020 at New York’s Javits Center.
“It was just enormous. You were working in the hot zone the entire time,” she said from her home during a break in her deployment. That meant an entire team from the military helped the medical staff in the daunting process of putting on and taking off personal protective equipment, called donning and dossing.
“Every step of the way [they] made sure we were secure. They gave us changes of masks and were there even for going to the bathroom. If we were in a rush, they made us stop and think, because safety comes first.”
Other deployments took Bogner-Orenstein to Kingsport, Tenn., and the Gallup Indian Medical Center, a 99-bed hospital bordering the Navaho Reservation in New Mexico.
She can be called up at any moment, so she keeps a ready-bag packed.
“My go bag has all my food — we have to have three days of non-perishable food available. You never know what environment you’re going to get thrown into —no electricity, sleeping with 40 other people and there are snorers, so I bring earplugs.”
As an observant Jew, in addition to extra scrubs, zip ties (handy for hundreds of uses she claimed) and duct tape, she carries kosher meals, nuts and tuna. And she uses a set of battery-operated Shabbat candlesticks. In December, she celebrated Chanukah in her hotel room in Navaho country with an electric menorah.
“I live embraced in Judaism, so I don’t know how not to do it,” she said. “And part of Judaism teaches you to be prepared: Shabbat comes once a week, so you prepare for it. You know how to prepare Passover. Everybody’s always surprised [when] it’s early this year, but it’s the same time every year” on the Jewish calendar.
Because she is Shabbat observant, she will work on Shabbat if assigned to while deployed. Anything she has to do for patients is permitted under the Jewish precept pikuach nefesh, literally “watching the soul,” meaning that when someone cares for the sick and dying, Jewish law can be overridden. “Saving lives comes first,” she said.
As a nurse, Bogner-Orenstein said she sees no division between her work life and her Jewish spiritual life. In fact, she calls them entwined.
“Judaism is a way of life that wires your brain to understand that delayed gratification is OK. It teaches you how to practice patience. We always think about living the past, or worry about what we are going to do. Judaism teaches you to be in the now. Enjoy the now.”
After seeing the devastating effects of coronavirus on so many, Bogner-Orenstein offered her most important, and oft-repeated advice: “Everyone plays a role in beating this pandemic. The truth is if people just did the three W’s — Watch your distance. Wear a mask. Wash your hands — then we can all get through this.”
Correction, March 25: The story originally described Bogner-Orenstein as a volunteer. It was corrected to reflect that she is paid by the U.S. government as an intermittent employee of the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS).