The courage of healthcare workers on the frontline of both treating and preventing the spread of the coronavirus outbreak has drawn praise and given them hero status.
Recently, we met three nurses of Croatian descent working in the fight against COVID-19 at the same hospital in one of the worst-hit countries – the United States. Today we meet three more Croatian healthcare workers in the United States, Mary Stulic Bilic, Arijana Pribanic and Danijela Kero.
Originally from Queens, New York City, 36-year-old Mary Stulic Bilic now lives in southern Pennsylvania and currently works in a Level 3 Trauma Emergency Room in Maryland.
“My parents are from neighboring towns in Zadar. My father is from Nin and my mother is from Zaton. My husband Dalibor, is from Sarajevo and we have a 2-year-old son named Petar,” Mary tells us.
After graduating from Molloy College in 2008, Mary has been a Registered Nurse for 11 years. Mary says the current situation has been stressful for everyone but working with a great team helps them all get through it together.
“It varies day by day which is the beauty of emergency room nursing. Obviously, because we are not densely populated as NYC we don’t have as many cases but we have them for sure. In the ER, we are literally on the frontlines and never know what’s going to walk through the door. With that being said, proper precautions are instilled in placing potential COVID patients in a specific area within our Emergency Department by following an algorithm based on symptoms. The staff caring for the confirmed or suspected cases of COVID are all wearing PPE and have someone watching them to ensure that they are sanitizing properly in between patients,” she says.
Mary says it has been nice to see not only the community but the world recognize essential workers besides healthcare staff. Environmental services, grocery, and postal workers are being recognized for their dedication and sacrifice as well.
Arijana Pribanic (41), who was born and raised in Đurđevac, a town in the Podravina region in northern Croatia, lives today in East Meadow, NY with her husband Robert, and daughters Antonia and Matea.
Arijana arrived in the United States with her parents and brother when she was 9-years-old. She is currently a Respiratory Therapist at NYU Langone Medical Center and has been working there for 15 years.
Arijana says the situation there has been like nothing she ever experienced before.
“I work in the cardiothoracic, lung, and heart transplant unit. The situation in the beginning, in the middle of March, was extremely fearful. I’ll describe it as like going into a burning room after burning room. Now, imagine that 50 to 60 times a day. For pre-COVID-19 preparation, the ORs stopped running and we cleared out several floors for the unexpected. Within a week we filled up 5 floors with COVID-19 patients. At one point we ran out of ventilators (my hospital owns 75, and about 30% are used on a regular basis). They just kept coming from the ER, every 20 to 30 minutes, on ventilators, already intubated. Honestly, it was nothing I have ever experienced before. We were just so overwhelmed. These patients were requiring ventilator modes and settings so unusual for my practice. Their lung secretions were like mud, multiple organ failures. At one point I had 35 ventilator patients on my floor, all by myself. I was lucky enough to see them once if twice per shift. Finally in mid-April relief came in, we received traveler therapists from all over the country. At that point, we each had about 7 to 10 patients, which is standard on a normal, typical workday. We never ran out of PPE, there was an abundance of caps, surgical gowns, and masks, though the N95 respirators and face shield I received one per shift. Gowning and degowning takes most of the time away from patient care. But it’s mandatory, with precision not to decontaminate yourself, other staff, patients and bring germs home to loved ones,” Arijana recalls.
She says the situation now is steady and there has been a decline in ER admissions.
“At this point, we are treating patients that have been on ventilators for the past month, some of them even our own colleagues. The most emotional part was knowing that these people can not have visitors and family members during their most difficult time. Holding their hand as they take their last breath and cheering them on as we extubate the ones who have recovered has put an emotional toll on me,” she says, before adding.
“There was definitely fear in our eyes, but as days go by you just become numb to the situation. The outpour of love and support from family and friends has been empowering. I look on the positive side and better days ahead. This too shall pass and I will once again be able to hug my parents, see my newborn niece, have big get-togethers, BBQ, visit Croatia, maybe see Paris.”
One of Mary’s old friends, whom she went to vjeronauk (Sunday school) with at Sts. Cyril & Methodius & St. Raphael Church in NYC, is 36-year-old Danijela Kero, a doctor working in New York, the worst hit with over 313,000 cases and 18,900 deaths to date.
Danijela, whose family is from the small village of Bibinje outside of Zadar, graduated medical school n New York in 2010 and completed her residency at Maimonides Infants & Children’s Hospital in Brooklyn, NY in 2013. Since then she has been working as a pediatrician at a private practice in New York City.
“The situation here in NYC is pretty stressful since we are the epicenter of the pandemic. Luckily as pediatricians, our patients have not been as severely affected by the disease but we still have to be very careful especially in infants under the age of 6 months. A typical day in the office can be quite chaotic as we try to keep our healthy patients away from anyone with respiratory symptoms. Our guidelines and practices have changed drastically in the last few months as we try to keep our patients and staff as safe as possible. We also try our best to keep ourselves healthy so that we can continue to serve our patients,” Danijela says.
She says that although it has been a stressful and scary time, it is always wonderful when a patient and their family take the time to say thanks for coming to work and taking care of them.
“Some patients post pictures on our windows or write sweet notes which always brightens my day,” Danijela concludes.