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Unsung Heroes: Interpreter combined compassion with tough news
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Unsung Heroes: Interpreter combined compassion with tough news

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Editor’s note: Methodist Fremont Health received its first COVID-19 patient a year ago this week. Last September, a Fremont Tribune story highlighted nurses on the frontlines. This week, the Fremont Tribune is casting a spotlight on the behind-the-scenes people who helped in the fight against a pandemic.

Maria Calderon is grateful for the woman who prayed.

As she faced her own shock at how COVID-19 was claiming the lives of young, healthy people, Calderon found comfort through a patient’s loved one.

Calderon is the language services coordinator at Methodist Fremont Health, where she’s worked for 13 years. One of a team of six, she interprets English to Spanish for patients with limited English skills.

Interpreters worked around the clock to help patients, families and staff during the pandemic.

And on a battlefield where healthcare workers fought to save lives, Calderon was among the tender warriors whose compassion transcended language barriers and who sought to bring understanding and comfort to frightened and grief-stricken people.

Far from the misconception that only older adults were dying of COVID, many patients who came to the hospital in the early days weren’t elderly.

They were young Latinos with young families and Calderon had to break the news to the families that their loved ones weren’t going to survive.

Virus-caused isolation added to the heartache.

Making allowances for end-of-life situations, hospitals across the country had to limit or restrict visits to try to keep the deadly virus from spreading further.

So it wasn’t uncommon for family members to wait outside in parking lots just to be a little closer to their very sick loved one.

One family member said she prayed in the hospital parking lot every night at Methodist Fremont Health. She’d pray for her family member, the nurses and doctor.

Those prayers helped Calderon feel less alone.

“At that time, you kind of feel like everyone outside the hospital is living their own lives,” she said. “But when you were here, it kind of felt like you were on a battle ground — like nobody really understood what you were seeing here, what they were doing here. So knowing someone from the community was here, outside, and praying for us, that felt really nice.”

Before COVID, Calderon’s work included interpreting for patients during appointments or when they were in the emergency or outpatient departments.

Appointments were canceled during the pandemic and interpreters were called to interpret for COVID patients and their families. The interpreters’ schedules changed from their regular 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. timeframes.

“During COVID, we were here a lot,” Calderon said. “We could be working our regularly scheduled hours and we could go home at midnight, because we had family members who were here talking to doctors or just wanting to be with the patient, but through the window (from the hallway).”

Like many other employees, Calderon faced exhaustion, but found strength through teamwork.

“Everyone here at the hospital came together and we all worked as a team,” she said. “It was a very scary time for everyone. We were all scared for the patients. We wanted to give them the best and we wanted the best outcome for the patients, but we were also scared, ourselves, for our families.

“Seeing how everyone worked together gave us that extra push we needed for the patient and their families.”

That teamwork was necessary as staffers faced the unknowns of what would be called an unpredictable virus.

Calderon recalls the pandemic’s early days.

“Nobody really knew what this was, at that time, or if it was going to be one week and the next week it was going to go away — so we really wanted the family to be comfortable and give our all for them,” she said.

Hospital staffers weren’t immune to suffering.

“One of the hardest things was seeing young people die — young people who had families — and delivering the bad news to the family that ‘Your family member is not going to get well,’” she said.

It was tough for family members to understand how their loved ones could come into the hospital, walking and talking, and then later have their lives come to an end.

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Such things were hard for Calderon to understand as well.

“I was really in shock,” Calderon said. “I could not believe it. There were so many questions I asked myself like, ‘Why them, if they were healthy?’ ‘Why was it so much of the Latino community?’ I didn’t know how to process it at that time.”

COVID numbers peaked toward the end of May 2020 and then remained steady until a surge in November.

Hospital staff used technology to help communicate with families.

“We did Facetime,” Calderon said. “We did phone calls, everything we could think of to communicate.”

They used WhatsApp, which works internationally, to reach family members in Mexico, Guatemala or El Salvador for conversations between them and the doctors.

Compounding the situation was that it was hard for family to understand how sick their loved one was without seeing them in person. Trying to communicate that was tough.

There were some success stories.

“I think the first time that one of the patients woke up from the induced coma — when they were able to talk to a family member and tell them that they were OK — I think that was for me very touching,” Calderon said. “It makes you think of your loved ones and how you would react if you went through something like that.”

Calderon helped the patient communicate via Facetime.

“Just seeing the tears of the patient, of the family member — after not seeing them for a couple months — then that really touches you,” she said. “It’s one of those moments you only see on TV, but then when you really see it, it really gets to you.”

A majority of the family members Calderon helped had loved ones who died, including the person who prayed each night in the parking lot.

Families still expressed gratitude.

“A lot of them just said, ‘Thank you for helping’ or ‘for trying to save my family member’s life,’” she recalled.

Calderon would learn much during that time.

“I learned that everyone here in the hospital is more like family,” Calderon said. “Everyone here kind of pitches in so it’s good to have good co-workers and work for a good place where people have your back. There’s always someone who is willing to listen — that teamwork — because you can’t really pull the load on your own.”

In August, Calderon was a 2020 Caring Kind Award winner.

The statewide honor comes from the Nebraska Hospital Association. It recognizes outstanding health care employees, who’ve demonstrated compassion for patients, cooperation with co-workers, and dedication to providing the best care possible.

“I felt like there were people that were more deserving, to be honest, who worked a lot harder, like a doctor or the nurses taking care of the patients who should have received the award,” she said. “But at the same time, I was very humbled to receive it for everyone that works behind the scenes.”

An excerpt from the nomination details how those around Calderon viewed her contributions.

It stated that Calderon had been involved in the most difficult and complex communications with patients and their families.

“Time and again, Maria accurately, empathetically and compassionately assisted in meaningful and effective communication between the various parties,” the nomination stated. “At times, the patients and families that Maria worked with were also friends and acquaintances.”

One time, Calderon stayed late into the evening after a long day at work to help when the patient’s spouse had a significant medical crisis as a result of the trauma experienced when their loved one died in the intensive care unit.

“Maria’s caring and poise was and is an inspiration to us all,” the nomination stated. “In truth, there are many qualified recipients of this year’s ‘Caring Kind’ Award, but Maria’s constant presence and help made the journey better and a bit easier for all of us.”

Two other award finalists, Jill Broekemeier (acute nursing) and Wendy Rix (Dunklau Gardens), were honored as well.

A year has passed since the hospital admitted its first COVID-positive patient and the days of pandemic’s peak seem now like a long time ago to Calderon, but she retains memories of the team.

And of someone who prayed for them in the parking lot.

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News Editor

Tammy Real-McKeighan is news editor of the Fremont Tribune. She covers news, features, religion stories and writes the weekly faith-based, Spiritual Spinach column.

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