Ep24: Joseph Richard, RN – The Nurse Who Beat Cancer & Went on The COVID-19 Frontlines

Hills and Valleys is a podcast that uncovers stories from leaders in healthcare, tech, and everything in between. Straight from the heart of Silicon Valley, we give you a look at the good, the bad, and the future, one episode at a time. Brought to you by Potrero Medical.

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About Joseph Richard

Joseph is originally from Bossier City Louisiana and is currently living in Los Angeles California working in the intensive care unit. He has a bachelors in science of nursing working towards a Masters in science of nursing for acute care gerontology nurse practitioner.    

    Interviewer: Omar M. Khateeb, Director of Growth at Potrero Medical

Interviewee: Joseph Richard

Khateeb: Hey everyone! It’s Omar M. Khateeb, Director of Growth here at Potrero Medical with another great episode of Hills and Valleys. I heard about this young gentleman’s story earlier this week, and I couldn’t help but be incredibly inspired by it because of the bravery and courage it takes to do the things that this young man has done.

We’re joined by Joseph Richard, who is a nurse on the front lines of this really devastating pandemic. But what’s most interesting, and I would say inspiring, is that Joseph is actually a cancer survivor and upon coming out of treatment, he had every right not to go back into nursing and he did.

When he went back into nursing, he volunteered himself in the middle of a pandemic, coming out of a cancer diagnosis to go on the front lines and be in the COVID unit. I can’t explain what kind of bravery and character it takes to do that, but I want to learn more and share his story.

Joseph, thank you so much for joining us. How are you?

Joseph: I’m good. How are you?

Khateeb: I’m doing great. So, Joseph, why don’t we kind of start from the beginning. What made you become a nurse? What’s your background and story like?

Joseph: When I was young, I remember I was in a church setting with my mom, my aunt, and the rest of my family. I was 12 at the time. I fell asleep in church like 12-year-olds do. I remember waking up and seeing my mom-who’s a nurse-and my aunt-who’s a doctor- performing CPR on the preacher because he had actually fallen out and I guess he had coded. Of course, I don’t understand what’s going on at this point, but in my mind, I was like, I want to be like my mom and my aunt.

After that I did EMT basic at high school, and I got certified as an EMT basic. Then I decided to go to nursing school. While I was in nursing school, I worked in the ER and I admired working alongside those nurses. I definitely realized nursing was going to be something that I would enjoy doing probably for a long time.

So that’s what made me decide to be a nurse.

Khateeb: That’s fantastic. Where did you go to school and where did you train?

Joseph: I went to Northwestern in Louisiana. There are two campuses. There’s one in Natchitoches, a small town and then the nursing campus is in Shreveport.

Khateeeb: Are you originally from the South?

Joseph: I am.

Khateeb: Really? Where we’re in the South are you from?

Joseph: I’m originally from a small town named Natchitoches, but I grew up in Bowsher city.

Khateeb: Oh, got it. No wonder we get along so well, I’m from the South as well. I’m originally from Texas.

Joseph: Oh, okay. Which part?

Khateeb: El Paso, Texas.

Joseph: Okay, cool.

Khateeb: We Southerners, it’s like we know what it’s about, man.

Joseph: It’s a whole different place down there. It’s cool.

Khateeb: It really is. Man, I’ll tell you what, I gained a lot of weight when I went to New Orleans.

Joseph: [Laughs]We’ve got really good food.

Khateeb: Yeah. What took you from the South all the way out here to the West coast?

Joseph: After I became a nurse and worked for two years, I wanted to get out of my smaller town, of course.

Khateeb: I know that sounds cool. I feel you on that. We love our hometown here, but we have to get out.

[Both laugh]

Joseph: Yeah, we have to go see something else. I was like, I’m going to be a travel nurse and it’s going to be the best thing ever. I traveled up North, near San Francisco. I was in San Jose watch. Actually, I was in Gilroy, but it was near San Jose. That was my first assignment and I was like, this is a really small place.

But then I had a friend from Louisiana who was in California and he said, you should come to West Hollywood. So, I applied for a job, got it and came down to L.A.

Khateeb: How old were you when you moved down to West Hollywood?

Joseph: I was 26.

Khateeb: Young guy traveling and everything. It’s like, why not move to West Hollywood, right? It’s a lot smarter than me because I think I was still in Texas in my town, so I didn’t get out until later.

That’s fantastic. Where did you start your career in West Hollywood?

Joseph: I started my career as a traveler at Cedar Sinai in the medical ICU. I had been a medical ICU nurse, because in order to travel you have to be an ICU nurse for two years.

That’s the kind of thing that I would tell people. If you want to be an ICU travel nurse, you definitely need to get a good foundation of experience because as a traveler, you get two days of orientation and then that’s it. You’re on your own. Of course, nurses are going to back you up, but you have to be able to hold your own in that environment.

Khateeb: Absolutely. For me in a previous life, I was actually in medical school and worked very closely with a lot of nurses. I have the utmost respect for all nurses. With that said, I think there’s a certain territory that comes with being an ICU nurse.

You can feel it when you’re around them, especially the ICU nurses who have been doing it for two, three, or four decades. I feel like they’re almost like decorated five-star generals from the military.

They’re really lovely and sweet people, but they’re hard and you can feel it

[Joseph laughs]

Khateeb: As a traveling nurse, you’ve got this great experience, but I think the big thing about being a traveling nurse is that you don’t technically have a home, right? You’re bouncing around and you don’t get the benefit of just having, let’s say one mentor.

So, you really have to rely on yourself to learn a lot. Did you feel like that was your experience?

Joseph: At the first hospital I worked at, I felt that way, but then when I came to Cedars, actually I ended up feeling like I had a home in these people. I met so many nice nurses on the night shift. I’m still friends with them to this day, even though a lot of us have gone around separate ways.

I definitely feel like I had a home there. That’s why I actually decided to stop travel nursing and just stay there because I met some great friends outside of work and at work. It is the perfect setup for me at this point. I just had to stay, and I hated moving.

Khateeb: While you were there, did you have any mentors? Did you have anybody who took you under their wings where you learned a lot? What was that like?

Joseph: I feel like it was a lot of the nurses on the shift. I could name multiple people. I feel like everybody had my back on that shift. I would say it was the best-case scenario.

Khateeb: That’s fantastic. When did you get your cancer diagnosis? I’m curious to hear about it. What was that like? Could you walk us through that? Because it’s a really scary moment, no matter how much you might be exposed to it in medicine, that’s a really intense thing.

Joseph: I’ve been a nurse obviously for 10 years, but when somebody is explaining something to you yourself, as the patient, you don’t hear it the same. I definitely did not hear it the same. I understood it, but I didn’t understand completely. As your nurse, I would be like, I’ve got it, I know what to do and I can figure this out.

But for my own self, it didn’t make sense. Even though before I got the diagnosis, I knew it was cancer, I wasn’t ready to admit that to myself. I was diagnosed around mid-September 2018, but I’d been feeling symptoms around March 2018. At the time they weren’t symptoms to me, they were just like random things happening. I was like, Oh, they can’t be anything.

Khateeb: Especially being young. You’re just like, ‘whatever’.

Joseph: Yeah. I was working out and we were getting ready to go to Coachella. It was a big deal.


Khateeb: You really do live in West Hollywood. You got to go to Coachella and work out.

Joseph: We were all talking about our outfits for Coachella. I wouldn’t have thought cancer was coming up.

Khateeb: If you don’t mind, what were some of those symptoms?

Joseph: No, I don’t mind at all. Like I said, I’ll tell you when I started thinking these were cancer symptoms. However, the first symptom was an itchy scalp. It was extremely dry. And I was just like, well, this is random. I’ve never had like an issue like this before, but then I was like, whatever.

Khateeb: It just felt like someone threw itching powder and you were just constantly on it?

Joseph: It was the worst itching you could ever see and it was super dry. I was just like this isn’t horrible, but I can fix this. I was like, you know what? I’ll get a doctor’s appointment. That was the first thing.

The second thing I remember having was an extremely bad arm pain. When we could still travel, my family and I met in Oregon to see some other family. I remember my arm hurt so bad and my dad had to go pick me up hot packs and I was taking ibuprofen constantly, which you’re not supposed to do.

But something had to break the pain. I needed something and it would help. It was just a constant pain and eventually it got a little bit better.

The next thing I remember was when we went to the beach during summer, and all my friends were taking pictures. My friend was like, Oh my gosh, you look super skinny! We’re in West Hollywood and we’re all like, thank you, that’s great. Then I remember I put on a shirt to go to a friend’s going away party and the shirt didn’t fit me like it should. The year before, my friends were making fun of the fact that like my shirt was so tight that it was going to burst open because I was working out, so I had gained a lot of muscle, but then the shirt literally just swallowed me whole.

Then I was like, okay, this might not be good, something might be happening. When I finally said, I think it might be cancer was when a lump appeared on my neck. I was at work and I talked to one of the physicians. I said, Hey, I’m going to run the ultrasound on Monday. Can you take a look at it and see what you think? And she was like, yeah, that looks really concerning. You should probably go see your primary as soon as you can. Fortunately, I just had a scheduled appointment with my doctor because I had never seen an actual primary doctor. And I know everybody processed about nurses. We don’t go to the hospital unless we have to go to the hospital, but I said, I’m getting older and I need to probably go see a doctor.

So, I had set up that appointment, not thinking that all these problems were related. Then after seeing that, I said I think this might be cancer, but of course, I didn’t want to say that. I was also having night sweats and I said, Oh, this can’t be good. When I would drink beer or anything like that, I’d have chest pain. Then I did the one thing also that everybody says don’t do – I Googled it.

However, you’re not supposed to do that. But then I was like, with my medical background there was nothing wrong with Googling it.

Khateeb: Yeah, you won’t down the wrong path. You won’t get into that crazy online Facebook forum that people were saying, heal yourself with oils or something like that.

Joseph: Yeah, I used rationale. Okay, I’m having this chest pain and I feel like something’s wrong with my neck. Then I had to answer questions for myself. Where does the lymphatic system go? I had to review that because, as a bedside nurse, I’m not looking at the lymphatics. That’s not what I have to do, but I was like, let me review that because I know this is a thing and, sure enough, it goes right where the pain was kind of hurting. I looked it up and it said with a lipoma, you’ll have swollen lymph nodes and you could possibly have pain with drinking alcohol.

I was like that seems about what I’m having. At that point, I had an idea of what the diagnosis was. When I saw the doctor, she suggested doing a formal ultrasound of my neck. We were waiting for the results, but before the results came back, I had chest pain again. So, I called her and I said, I honestly think that whatever’s wrong with my neck is wrong with my chest and I think I need a CT. Fortunately, she didn’t give me any pushback. She said, you know what, you’re right. Let’s just go on and get the CT done before the results come back.

That being said, I’m still working. I’m a C3 at work. I have certain things that I have to do. At this point, I’m orienting someone and I have a project that I need to do. I had to go get a punch biopsy. I don’t know if people know what that is.

Khateeb: Explain to some of the non-medical folks what a punch biopsy is.

Joseph: I didn’t know what a punch biopsy was because, again at my job I don’t do that. In the medical field, I feel like if you work in a certain area, you see certain things over and over. Biopsies, not like that. We just don’t see punch biopsies. I’ve never seen it. But I’m like, okay, cool. I go into the office thinking it’ll be fine. I was sure I wasn’t going to be in any pain. It’s not going to be horrible. I can handle anything, I said to myself.

They put the lighter cane and I was like, Oh, that hurt a little bit. Then they get this gun and literally shoot what feels like a bullet into your neck six times. And when I say I was shaking; I kid you not. It was quite possibly the worst pain I’ve ever felt. After going through everything, I feel like maybe that ranks number two on the pain scale of things that I felt during that whole situation. It was so painful and I still had to go to work the next day. I was like, this is horrible. In my mind, I was scared that I knew what was going on. I knew there was going to come a time when I’m not going to be able to work. So, I need to come on and clock these hours because I’m not going to be able to work here soon. Before I got a formal diagnosis, I knew something was wrong. The worst thing that I heard from the doctor was that the punch biopsy was inconclusive.

I was like, this has got to be a joke. So, they had to schedule me for an actual surgery to get a true biopsy. And I mentioned that thing about the C3, because I had to do my projects that’s on the other nurse I was orienting at the time. I had to keep my game face on and train this guy to make sure that he’s a good ICU nurse.

Khateeb: How long ago was this? What year or month was this that you’re describing? Was this last year?

Joseph: Around the end of August to early September 2019. I was orienting at the time. I also remember the evening that I had to go get the true biopsy was a really emotional day, because at that point I had already got the CT scan done.

Like I said, I’m a senior nurse and had a project to do. That morning I actually had to do a safety committee project. So, I had to put on this whole show with my committee members and things like that. It was so sad because everybody brings food and I’m like, I can’t eat there. They ask, why can’t you eat? I’m like, I have a procedure to do. I remember talking with one of my coworkers and she was like, you look really, really skinny. Everybody was so used to my clothes being so tight, because I live in West Hollywood. Everyone was like, your clothes are actually falling off.

Later that day while I’m getting ready to leave the hospital and make sure my dog is okay, the doctor called me and said, Joseph, your CT came back and it is consistent with lymphoma. We’re going to get the biopsy today, but we’re pretty sure that it is lymphoma. We need to find out what kind of lymphoma it is and we need to get this ball rolling as fast as possible. So, the day was emotional for me because that was the day that I told my mom what was going on. Of course, you don’t want to sound the alarm until you have to sound the alarm.

Khateeb: Do you have siblings?

Joseph: I’m the oldest by 10 years.

Khateeb: You’re the oldest. Okay.

Joseph: I didn’t want to worry my mom, I didn’t want to scare her. At the same time, it was starting to get to the point where she needed to know what’s going on because to get the biopsy they actually had to intubate. This is when they put the tube down your throat, you’re on life support, they give you the medicine and you’re knocked out.

Being a medical ICU nurse, I’m like heaven forbid something happens. But what if I ended up having to go to the ICU and my mom’s like, what happened? How did I not know this was happening? I think that’s the first time that I was crying about the whole situation because it was so hard to tell my mom. I’d been dealing with it for more than a few months and then finally thinking it’s cancer myself and also getting the unofficial diagnosis from the doctor. It was just really hard telling my mom.

Of course, my mom was supportive and she was ready to get on a plane immediately. And I was like, stop right there, mom. Don’t do that just yet. My friends will take care of me through this part but I’m going to need you eventually though, to come out. That was pretty much the diagnosis part of it.

Khateeb: That’s really, really tough.

Joseph: Yeah. It was a tough one. It was tough, but it was okay. Fortunately, I had really good friends that were also my co-workers and they’ve been my friends for years. They took me to the biopsy and waited. I woke up, my friends where there for me, and they called my mom. It was okay, and I took the next day off. And then the next day I had to go back to work to orient.

Khateeb: Wow. When did you start your treatment?

Joseph: Here’s the one thing that I did, and it’s hard to say if I would recommend doing. At that time, I actually had a vacation planned at the end of September. My doctor was like, okay, we’re going to get you in for treatment. I told him I had a vacation plan to Barcelona. I’d never been to Barcelona. We were going on a gay cruise. It felt like a once in a life experience. Well, not exactly once in a lifetime, I could have always done this any other time. I was like, you know what? I’ve been planning all this time. I’m actually going to take that time off.

Khateeb: Yeah, have fun and party and especially cruises.

Joseph: Yeah, we’re not going to do that again for a while. But this is my rationale. I feel like I still stand by that decision. I know that when you’re going through treatment and things like that, you’re not going to go anywhere. You shouldn’t really be going to many places because, all these numbers drop that’s any of it. And then I also know the risks of having cancer and going through treatment. Worst case scenario is you could die. What’s so crazy is that after looking back at everything, my friends would tell me, there were certain times you would say something and I had to step back and I would cry. Like, this is what my friends are telling me. I remember after that biopsy, I guess I was so out of it that I told my friend, you know people die from this.

My friend was in my kitchen and I was just sitting there, feeling loopy from drugs. And he said he was just bawling because he was like, Oh my God, this is so real. I knew that that was a possibility. At that point, I was just like, wow, I guess I’m not immortal. I guess this really could happen.

So, I decided to take the trip. And if anything happens and my health is in jeopardy or I feel worse, I’m going to go to the hospital. I’ll know when things get bad. I just know.

Khateeb: You went on a week-long cruise and just balled out of control?

Joseph: I did. It was super fun, and absolutely needed. It was the perfect way to kick off treatment. When I got back, I was still working.

Khateeb: What was your favorite part about the cruise?

Joseph: For me, the favorite part about the cruise was just getting to have the freedom of being myself. I get that in my day to day live, but this was literally a time to just take a break from work and everything and just be fun and not worry about all the adult things that I have to do or being diagnosed with cancer.

I’m like, you know what? I’m going to have a good time. And I did.

Khateeb: It was a one week long cruise, right?

Joseph: It was a one week long cruise out of Barcelona.

Khateeb: Yeah. So, it was a Mediterranean cruise, right? You had all you could eat, meeting a lot of people, partying and having fun, yeah?

Joseph: Yes, it was amazing. I would not trade that experience for the world.

Khateeb: I’m a big believer in doing what your intuition tells you to do. I think maybe your intuition pushed you to do that. I think we have so much more power in our minds than we realize. When you’re going through really hard times, you have to go to the metaphorical cookie jar in your head and pull from happy times when you really felt good. Just to get a little dopamine flowing in your body. During your treatment did you ever go back in your mind and think about the fun times on the cruise? Did it help?

Joseph: I did. It does help. I still think about it because that was such a fun moment. Again, it was so needed. I planned that trip for literally a year, not knowing what was coming. I think it definitely helped to have that. But not only did that help me through things, my family and friends helped me.

I’ve spoken to people who have had cancer as well and they said they had to go on antidepressants. I didn’t need that because I was so overwhelmed with love and support. I didn’t need it because I was fine. My saying that I kept telling myself is, that I’ll cross that bridge when it comes.

I’m not going to worry. I’m going to just cross the bridge when it comes. I took a quote from Florence and the machines. I love her. She has this song called Only for the night. I just took one line that said “the only solution was to stand and fight”. And my friend bought me a bracelet that had that quote on it.

I was so surrounded by so much positivity that there was no way I’d think that.

Khateeb: That’s amazing. Definitely a lot of love and positive attitude is not enough to overcome a cancer diagnosis, but I think it definitely is going to help.

Joseph: Definitely.

Khateeb: This is something that’s not really well studied in medicine, and I think it should be taken really seriously. There are plenty of times that people view you’re younger, but somebody who’s later on in life gets a cancer diagnosis, and they quit their job and stop everything. Then they decide to go do whatever they want. Then magically of course through therapy but also on its own, they survive the cancer and they’re cancer free.

I think there’s something about the potential power of energy healing. Some people lose their mind on me that I just said that, but I really believe that. I mean, think about it. For you, you were surrounded with love and support. You went on this great cruise that you’re able to pull memories from. You didn’t have to get on antidepressants, which seems like a small thing, but then think about all the side effects that come along with antidepressants. Your body was already going through a lot.

How can you measure that? It sounds like that had an impact.

Joseph: It definitely had an impact. I feel like after going through that, it opened my eyes to say, Oh wait, maybe there is power in your mind. I literally had just nothing but time to just think of positive things. I had a lot of time. I didn’t feel like the usual day to day, when we’re always running around. We have this task and that task to do. At this point, I didn’t really have those tasks. It started dwindling down of course, because after I got the port put in my arm, they were like, you can’t lift more than 10 pounds.

I said, okay that’s it, I’m done working. My manager was super supportive. They asked, what do you need from us? We’ve got it, and we’ll help you figure it out. Then I put in my leave of absence and, everything went smoothly. I spoke with the doctors at work and I think this is the hard part about healthcare.

A lot of the things that was going to happen for me as far as like getting my report and, getting a bone marrow biopsy, my doctor was really good about pushing it. She always said we need this to be done sooner. Sometimes they would put the order in as ‘sooner’, it would come in about a month later.

Khateeb: Wow!

Joseph: I have worked with the people who do these things. When they ask what’s going on and I tell them, they’d literally say, no, you’re not coming in a month later; you’re coming in on Monday. I was very fortunate in that aspect. Obviously, it can’t be like this, but I wish that it was like that for everybody. I think that was a big help for me.

Everybody literally pushed to get things done way quicker than I think they would have been done if I didn’t work at the hospital.

Khateeb: I’m sure there’s a lot of people who stood by you, but there are probably a few that really stand out. Who are those people that really were like your angels through this whole period and helped you?

Joseph: There were a lot. Obviously, my parents. My mom and dad came literally from Louisiana. Believe me when I tell you coming from Louisiana is an all-day affair. It doesn’t matter how you cut it, you’re always going to have to take two flights or even if you drive for hours. My parents dropped everything and literally came for every other treatment that I had. For the treatments that they didn’t come, they called. My mom was like, if you need me at any moment, I will drop everything and be there. My dad literally said the same too. They were literally the MVP. My friends-Melissa, Chris, and Latoya-took me to my treatments when my parents weren’t here.

My aunt came up to visit me and she took me to a treatment. I feel like when I physically just couldn’t do things for myself, those are the people that literally stepped in and physically took me to the treatments and made sure I was okay after being pretty much doped up on all of the medication.

I think that was a big deal. And then of course I had a lot of other friends that came to check in on me and made calls.

[Joseph Laughs]

It was a lot, but you really find out who your true friends are. You know how they say you’ll never know who your true friends are until you’re in trouble. That’s so true. Those are my true friends.

Khateeb: I think the nice thing is that you were very fortunate that you were surrounded by these great people. As you mentioned, there’s a lot of times when it’s just you by yourself. What did you think about?

Joseph: Like during the times when I was just at home alone?

Khateeb: Yeah. How did you keep yourself going?

Joseph: You know what, I can’t believe I failed to mention that I have a dog. I am not going to lie, he kept me going because he was like a companion. He was there all the time. I have a five-pound Yorkie poo.

[Khateeb laughs]

Khateeb: I’ve never heard of a Yorkie poo.

Joseph: Yes, he’s a Yorkie poodle. He’s so sweet.

Khateeb: Oh, I didn’t know that exists. That makes sense!

Joseph: Yeah, he was so sweet. I didn’t feel lonely, I just felt fine. It’s hard to explain. Maybe it was just from all the medication that I had to take because a lot of time I was asleep. The nausea to me was a different kind of nausea. It was not like I’m dizzy or I’m sick. It was just like I felt weird all the time. I would have to take medication and then take a nap and then I would eat something.

I didn’t really have a lot of time to just be sitting there. My aunt would FaceTime me and check in on me and ask me, how’s your day going? Did you eat? That was pretty much the topic of conversation with everybody.

Khateeb: Again, it just seems like there’s this theme of making sure that you don’t have a shortage of compassion, good emotions and feelings around you. I think that there’s another powerful thing about having an animal around. Especially a dog. They’re happiest seeing you no matter what.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you didn’t have to be on antidepressants and you had this remarkable recovery because your body was allowed to really focus on healing itself. You and I see it all the time in medicine that it’s not a surprise that people who have really bad chronic conditions, a lot of the time it’s stemming from a lot of stress, right?

Joseph: Yeah, definitely.

Khateeb: From a physiological standpoint, I think it’s logical to think that if you swing on the other direction and get a lot of really good emotions, positivity, feeling fulfilled and grateful, they have some physiological effects on the body.

Joseph: Oh yeah. I definitely think so.

Khateeb: Are you still in treatment now? Where are things at now?

Joseph: My last chemo treatment was in January. This was also a really tough one for me, because when I thought it was over after I had completed the four treatments, the doctor said they saw something on the PET scan that they weren’t really aware of. Just to be safe, they advised to do four more treatments. It dragged it out a little bit longer to January, which again, was my big year. But it was another moment where I was like, we’ll cross the bridge as it comes.

During treatment, these are just a few things that happened. Literally my port came out because my skin was too tight, I guess. I had to go get a PICC line.  I had two more treatments to go and it felt tough. But, again, when I saw myself getting down about it, everything lifted me back up.

So, that ended in January and I was like, that’s it. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. They said I was going to go through radiation of about 35 or 45 treatments. I tend to forget the exact number, but it was literally daily for a month. My mom and dad offered to come out but I told them I’m fine now, I can do this part. You literally just go in there, lay down and they have you do all these kinds of crazy breaths and stuff like that.

The fun fact about this was the PET scan and I didn’t mention this. This was a really crazy thing. When I got diagnosed with cancer and I had to go do a PET scan, that same weekend I had to take a patient down for the same diagnosis that I had. I tend to remember bits and pieces of things that happened.

It was all over at the end of February. I talked to my doctor and they told me to take off most of March. So, I took off half February to half March and then I went back to work.

Khateeb: Got it. You just got out of this complete rollercoaster of a ride. You went through hell and it’s not like you went back to work in January or February where we didn’t know what was going on. You went back to work when in April, right?

Joseph: Mid-March.

Khateeb: Mid-March was getting close right at the peak of pandemic where everyone’s just afraid of dying and freaked out. At what point did you say, Hey, you know what, I think I’m not only going to go back to work, but I’m going to go and volunteer on the COVID units? Can you walk us through that? Because when I heard Rebecca tell me about it. She said, he just got out of this cancer diagnosis and I’m like, I’d love to interview him. Then she goes further to say, and then after he got out, he went and volunteered in the COVID unit. I was like, are you kidding me? So, walk us through that.

[Joseph laughs]

Joseph: This is the thing, had I not worked in that unit already, I probably wouldn’t have gone. But that was my home unit, the medical ICU. They turned it into a COVID unit. I’m seeing my unit being turned into a COVID unit and all my co-workers work super hard. Again, like I said, I’ve been an ICU nurse for years, so I know how to handle these situations. I was a charge nurse on my unit before I left, I was orienting people. I wanted to get back in there. I wanted to be able to do this. I want to come on and be of assistance. I want to do what I was made to do.

When I got back to work, my co-workers were all scared that I’m up on the unit. They’re like, what is going on, why are you here? And I’m like, I work here. I talked to my doctor and unfortunately, they said, to be honest we don’t really know what your risk is at this point. They told me my numbers look fine and I never really got to any critical level that they were concerned that I would get super sick. It was always an option, but it never happened. They weren’t too concerned about my numbers, but they told me that I’m not at the same health level that I was before.

Khateeb: We don’t know much about medicine. You went through chemo and your immune system wasn’t at tip-top shape at that time.

Joseph: I was scared. I was like this is going to be interesting. Of course, they wouldn’t let me go in the rooms. For the first month, I did not go into a COVID room. I literally just took care of the regular patients. We were onboarding a lot of nurses at this point because they said we’re going to need nurses. I was orienting nurses on regular patients on my fourth day back after being gone for like eight months or so. They were like, well, we just need you to show her how to use a computer. She’s been an ICU nurse. I’m said, I don’t know how to use the computer. I’ve been gone for like months and everything’s changed. But it was okay. I guided her and got her off orientation

There eventually came the time that I had to start going into the COVID rooms because that’s all we had. I was scared and, of course, I was a little bit behind on what the full COVID experience was at this point because I wasn’t going in the rooms. I was actually the experienced nurse relying on my co-workers to tell me what to do. I asked questions like: How do I get dressed for this? How do I go about proning patients? We were proning patients by flipping them over on their stomach so they can breathe better with their lungs. I hadn’t done that because I wasn’t going in those rooms. I remember one time in the room with other nurses and a travel RT. Everybody was looking to me for the direction and I said, this is actually my first time doing this in a long time.

So, I had to step it up and get back to the nurse that I was before I left. I explained that to a lot of my co-workers just to be open and honest. I wanted people to understand where I’m coming from. I told them that I don’t feel like the strong nurse that I left as, because I was gone for so long. I wasn’t here and it took time to get back to that nurse where I can take charge. Eventually, I got back to that, but at first, I was not that nurse. I was scared again. Maybe not new grad scared, but I was nervous.

Khateeb: Absolutely. What were the kind of things you saw dealing with COVID on the front lines?

Joseph: I saw extremely sick people. Once I started going into the COVID rooms and having my own patients, I started orienting more people to teach them how to work in the medical ICU. You’re going through teaching somebody else how to be a medical ICU nurse, and then you‘re seeing extremely sick people. This is not common. Basically, the biggest deal that people were having was a respiratory issue. I guess they were saying that a cytokine storm would cause so much inflammation and then put the patient into ARDS. The ARDS was so bad that they’re on really high vent settings. They were on peeps of like 16 and things like that.

They were not oxygenated well enough. Their PF ratios were low, so we had to prone them to open their lungs and make them oxygenate. However, in the middle of all this, we have them on two sedatives. We have them on fentanyl, propofol and a paralytic. When you’re on a paralytic, you run the risk of not regaining muscle strength, and your muscles weaken after sometime. At this time, they’re not sure which treatment’s the right treatment so they’re given the Plaquinel, Remdesevir and the convalescent plasma.

It was a lot to keep up with on top of teaching somebody else how to put on the whole outfit, bringing that person in the room and then trying to make sure the patient’s safe.

Khateeb: Things are changing in real time, but back in the spring it was chaos.

Khateeb: Are you still on the same unit now?

Joseph: I am still currently on the same unit. I’m actually looking into transitioning to a different unit, just because I’m also in school to be a nurse practitioner. I figured that I’ve done a lot of time in that queue and oriented a lot of people. I want to see something new.

Khateeb: After a cancerdiagnosis and treatment, and then just volunteering the COVID unit at the height of the pandemic, I think you deserve to take it easy.

[Joseph laughs]

Joseph: I think so. Hopefully, I’m going to learn something new in a different area and see where I want to be as a nurse practitioner. And obviously if my unit calls, I’ll come back if I have to.

Khateeb: Joseph again, I really appreciate you spending some time with us. As we wrap up, I’ve got a couple of quick rapid-fire questions for you. The first one is if you can speak directly to anybody who’s just received a cancer diagnosis or family member who’s had somebody in their life who received a cancer diagnosis, what’s the message you want to perhaps tell them?

Joseph: I would definitely say keep your head up, you’ll cross that bridge when it comes. The more you stress about it, the worse it gets. At the end of the day, you can only do so much. Even if it doesn’t end favorably, what was the point in stressing about it? You really have to just take in every positive energy that you can and hope for the best. Try to stay as happy as possible because getting down on it literally is not going to help you.

Khateeb: Yeah, I completely agree. I think I really like your module. The only solution is to stand and fight.

Joseph: No, I got that from Florence.

Khateeb: Still, I think there’s something to be said about that which is that was a mantra you said to yourself every day. I guess you’re right. Getting down about it and stressing is not going to change anything. That’s not going to make things get better. I think you found a way to live with it and make the most out of it. And I think there’s a lot to be said there.

The last question I have for you is for all the nurses who are listening and your fellow nurses that are out there in the front lines dealing with COVID, what kind of message do you have for them?

Joseph: First and foremost, I want to say thank you for working with me. Thank you for fighting. We’ve got this. Nurses are resilient, doctors are resilient and we’re going to beat this. That’s the biggest thing I have for everybody.

Khateeb: I completely agree. If I can say this for everybody listening, really thank you for being who you are and doing what you do, because you don’t have to do these things. Especially to all the nurses out there.

I heard a very nice saying the other day that I like. When you save a life, do you know what they call that person? When you save a life, you’re a hero, but when you save a hundred lives, you’re a nurse.

Joseph: Oh, my gosh. That’s pretty cool. I’ve never heard that actually.

[Joseph laughs]

Khateeb: I heard that and I was like, I hope people haven’t heard this. I like to be the one to share it. I really liked it a lot. Thank you so much for coming on and sharing your story. I think that stories are the things that keep us going, give us hope, and give meaning in our suffering. Just by people hearing your stories, I think it’s going to impact and influence them in such a positive way. So many people that you’ll never meet and you’ll never know about. Thank you again so much, Joseph. We really appreciate it.

Joseph: No problem, thank you!

Khateeb: Absolutely. Thank you all for listening. It’s been another great episode of Hills and Valleys, and we will see you next time.