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The City Journals

Alta View nurse helps COVID patient safely connect with her family

Jan 11, 2021 12:03PM ● By Heather Lawrence

Partners in crime: RN Justin Ables and recovering COVID patient Betty “Nana” Donaldson cooked up the perfect plot to help her see her family from a safe distance at Alta View Hospital in November. (Photo courtesy Justin Ables)

By Heather Lawrence | [email protected]

Heroic stories of healthcare workers have been a highlight of 2020. Utah’s healthcare workers do amazing work every day, mostly without recognition. RN Justin Ables works in the ICU at Alta View Hospital, and in November he helped an older COVID patient connect with her family in a meaningful way. 

“I was Betty’s nurse and had been working with her for several days. I was in contact with her family as much as possible. Sometimes the updates were bad news. I didn’t see a lot of good things happening, and the deck was stacked against her,” Ables said. 

Betty “Nana” Donaldson of Holladay is 81 years old, and her husband Jack passed away Oct. 16. She had strong family support, but when she was admitted to the hospital with COVID, precautions kept her from having any face-to-face visitors. 

“She was requiring a lot of oxygen, and we thought she’d probably end up on a breathing tube, which isn’t good. 

“But then the tide turned. We saw marked improvement. ‘Today she stood at the bedside, today she walked to the window, today she sat in her chair.’ It doesn’t sound like much, but in COVID recovery terms, that’s like running a marathon,” Ables said. 

Ables felt a connection to “Nana,” who he says is “unstoppable.” He loved the Tennessee native’s attitude: “You can’t keep a country girl down.”

“I wondered if because of her husband she might quickly follow him. But one day she looked straight at me and told me she couldn’t die because ‘I have things to do here,’” Ables said. 

The happy day came when Nana would get transferred from the ICU to the regular medical/surgical floor, and there were a few tests Ables needed to take her for along the way.  That’s when he got a great idea. 

“I realized that we’d be passing by an entrance that wasn’t often used. I wanted to take her out in the sunlight and fresh air for a few moments. And then it came to me: What if, when we passed by, her granddaughter just happened to be out there at a safe distance? I talked to my colleagues and got the OK,” Ables said. 

It turned out that Tara Nichols, Nana’s granddaughter, spread the word. As Ables and Nana approached the entrance, the automatic doors opened and 25 family members with signs and balloons cheered for Nana. Her physical therapist helped her show off by standing up and attempting a few steps. 

“I don’t have the words to thank Justin and the rest of the staff at Alta View. He made our dreams come true that day,” Nichols said. 

Nana’s improvement was even sweeter because they’d had a scare a few days before the transfer. 

“That was a Tuesday, and the Saturday before that she had called everyone in the family. She was getting worse and she didn’t know if she would make it through the night. She called us all to say goodbye. It was the hardest phone call of my life,” Nichols said. 

When she made it through the night, the family was thrilled. “She’s strong. She’s a fighter. She had been taking care of her husband round the clock for the past two months before he passed away. And she said she wanted to be here and live,” Nichols said.  

Nana’s family said that seeing her taken care of in such a personal way was very comforting. “We could tell by the way the staff treated her that they really cared,” Nichols said. 

Nana was discharged from the hospital on Dec. 4, and Nichols said that she’s at home with 24/7 care. “But she’s recovering. She’s a feisty woman.” 

Ables appreciated getting to know Nana’s family, who he says was “a joy to talk to, really open and kind people, generous with their spirit. They called her every day. I learned what a big part of their lives she is, and vice versa,” Ables said. 

As case numbers rise, even with a vaccine on the horizon, Ables hopes that people will continue to be vigilant and take precautions. When the healthcare system is strained, he and his colleagues don’t have the time and energy to give their patients the highest level of care. 

“You get into nursing because you want to help, and you’d do just about anything for your patients. As caregivers we internalize their loneliness and isolation. But when there’s a strain on our system, the extras are the first to go, the back rubs and the chats at the bedside. 

“You start to think, ‘If I stay longer with this patient, then my other patient won’t get their antibiotic on time.’ They are impossible choices. And I have to give Intermountain Healthcare big props—they’ve gotten us the resources we need and brought in travel nurses,” Ables said. 

Ables said the concern is there every day that as a caregiver he’s taking risks. Every time he goes into a patient’s room, he wonders if this is the day that he missed covering up correctly or doesn’t have all his PPE on. Is today the day that he gets COVID? 

“When you hear that facilities are at 85% capacity, it refers to room space. You can put beds anywhere. But the main resource that provides good care is the workers. Some days we’re struggling to provide the very basics of care to people, so when there’s a circumstance to provide extraordinary care, you have to jump on it,” Ables said. 

“I was anticipating a few people driving by in their cars. When I turned the corner and saw dozens of people cheering and holding signs, I couldn’t help but tear up. It will be one of the highlights of my career. She basked in the sunlight, it was magical. I can’t describe it any other way,” Ables said.