Q&A with a nurse on the front lines

Natalia Pensak

By Yakira Cohen

Natalia Pensak is a nurse who works the night shift in the Progressive Coronary Care Unit in Baltimore’s Sinai Hospital. Following a maternity leave from March to May, she has been on the front lines, treating patients with COVID-19.

What has it been like to directly treat people who have coronavirus?

Any time you get assigned a patient that’s positive, you double check everything, make sure that you’re protecting yourself because we all have some kind of family, some kind of friends or something, we all have neighbors. We don’t want to bring anything home to anybody. … [Patients] don’t have that family at the bedside. They don’t have people sitting there with them, comforting them. We are the comfort. … As caring as nurses typically are, we have to go that level or above, because they’re so alone, and that’s scary and sad from a patient perspective.


How do you balance treating coronavirus and having a family?

I had a baby March 8, and I was on maternity leave until May 31, so I missed the onslaught of coronavirus. … It was really, really interesting going from how I left treating patients to going back to it. … I have to make sure there is nothing that touched work that is now inside my house. It takes longer to come home. You can’t just come home from work and toss your stuff aside; it’s a whole process. At work, I change into totally clean clothes, top to bottom, head to toe. Then when I come home from work, I put my scrubs in a special hamper that is not mixed with anything else, and then I shower down there as well, and I come up totally clean, ready to enjoy my family. … It takes a lot from a spouse to know that their significant other was in a highly contagious work environment and to be able to just still function normally at home without thinking that they’re bringing home coronavirus. It takes a lot of strength from the spouse, as well, and a lot of trust, for sure.

What’s the best part of your job?

I feel every single day, every single shift, that I’ve made a difference to somebody. Big or small, I’ve made a difference. … I work in a hospital that actually is grounded in Jewish values. They offer fully kosher meals, they honor Shabbos … But the majority of our patients are not Jewish. I’m overtly Jewish because I do wear a skirt over my scrub pants, I cover my hair. … You really do have an opportunity, every single day as well, to make a Kiddush Hashem. … I have the opportunity to add something good to their day, because they’re in a hospital, they’re sick, what’s good about that? I have the chance to be something positive in a very low time in someone’s life, in a very scary time in someone’s life, and on top of that also make a Kiddush Hashem.

What have you been most surprised by?

The people who stayed in health care. Anybody can quit their job. … I am so surprised by the people who stayed, and they deserve all the props in the world, because this is not easy. … Some people had to quarantine from their families. That is hard, and that is not normal. … I am just so surprised and blown away by the amount of people who stayed. These are people who are born to be in the position that they’re in. They really stepped up to the plate. They’re still working as hard as ever to do what they have to do to get the world through this.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

As Jews, we always are very much not just focused on ourselves, we’re focused on the world out there. We’re not just in our little bubble but everything we do has an impact on the world. … The whole “stay home, stay safe” initiative is not just for you, it’s for grandma, it’s for whoever else. … Challenging times are an the opportunity to bring out the best in yourself, and as hard and challenging as the pandemic is, even just from being at home, even more so being in a health care field, from a frum perspective, it kind of, really, is making you dip deep as far as your emunah [faith] and bitchachon [confidence] and seeing your purpose in the greater scheme of things.

Yakira Cohen is a journalism and psychology student at the Honors College of the
University of Maryland, College Park.

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