When called upon to serve a vulnerable population, Nicole Laurino, RN, volunteered her skills to help treat patients with COVID-19. Over the course of the pandemic, Nicole and her fellow nurses from different departments within Mass General came together to treat these patients with compassion.
The Cancer Center’s Story Project is an effort to capture stories from our community of patients, friends, family, clinicians, and staff who have been affected by cancer in some way. This is Maggie's Story.
- Over the last nine weeks, Maggie Joyce, RN has changed the way that she defines being a nurse. Working from home, making connections with new patients, and working on activating a number of new clinical trials has defined this transitional period for Maggie and other nurses at the Cancer Center.
- “I think why my feelings have changed in a positive way is because I’ve been calling many of the same patients for the last nine or so weeks. I am building some kind of relationship with them over the phone. These are patients that I’ve never even met."
“I was a phase 1 clinical trials nurse in the Termeer Center. I was going into clinic four times a week, ten hour shifts. Then the whole virus came to be, and people were being sent to work remotely from home. I am now 36 weeks pregnant, at the time I was, twenty-something weeks along. Before becoming a research nurse last June, I worked up in Philips 21, now 22, for 10 years as a bedside nurse. It was a big difference going from the inpatient setting to the research setting. And then this whole thing happened. And it made me feel like I was going to be deployed back up there."
"It was scary. I got the emails and my initial thought was how scared I was going to be if I was sent up there. I thought ‘there are six research nurses in our group, and out of the six of us I had the most experience on the unit, and it wasn’t that long ago that I was there.’ At first, there was a part of me that was ok with that. I felt like I owed it to myself, but there was a part of me that was scared as anything. I emailed my boss Casandra McIntyre and let her know that I would be more than willing to be redeployed. And she said to me ‘you’re pregnant, and you also have a one and a three year old at home. If we can keep you home, we will keep you home.’ But there was still this feeling inside me that was saying; ‘if I can go, I should go.’ It’s been this battle of what I feel like what I should be doing versus what I am doing, while also still feeling so blessed that I can be at home with my family now. These past nine weeks have been a series of emotions.”
What has been the most challenging part of this transition?
“There was a complete sense of guilt, and there still is today. Just in the last two weeks I feel like I’m starting to get over that a little bit. I have the knowledge to be helping. Phillips 22 became a COVID unit. A lot of my fellow nurses have been redeployed to the ICUs. And to hear their stories, and listen to the Schwartz Rounds on Friday’s where we can hear all the first hand accounts of what’s going on out there. Anytime I hear someone talk about a difficult situation that they’ve had with one of these patients, or even patients getting treated in the Cancer Center, it’s this guilt that I should be there on the frontline. I have the knowledge to do this, I could be out there treating them. Whether that means I should have just gone to infusion to help out, or something like that, now I’m sitting at home. It was in the last two weeks that I realized that I am helping. I’m calling my patients and I’m getting in touch with them and helping from here."
"Talking to my fellow nurses has helped. I realized the only time I’ve left the home in the past nine or so weeks was to go to my OB once, they’ve done all of my other visits virtually. I think after all this has passed, there will be this little bit of agoraphobia where I’m afraid to go outside and do things."
"For the first five or so weeks I’d be on the phone with my patients reassuring them that it’s safe to go to Mass General, and that it was ok to go to their appointments. I do believe it is safe to go into Mass General. It was tough for me though, telling these patients it was ok to go into a place that I was not going into.”
How does ‘Working From Home’ look for you as a nurse?
“We learned quickly that we can actually work from home. We never really thought we could, but we can make it work. It’s a different thing. A part of you feels like you’ve lost your identity as a nurse a little bit. You don’t have that physical contact with the patients. You’re not able to bond in that sense. I think why my feelings have changed in a positive way in the last few weeks is because I’ve been calling many of the same patients for the last nine or so weeks. I am building some kind of relationship with them over the phone. These are patients that I’ve never even met, but I took over the calls from home. Three of our nurses are still in clinic and three of us are at home.
"When a patient starts on a clinical trial, we try and keep the nurses the same. We try and have, you know, ‘our patients’, so that we can build a relationship with them, so the patients can really get to know someone. Now I am starting to build that relationship with them, the phone calls have turned more into conversations about weekend plans, how they’re feeling, something to take their mind off things. It also takes my mind off of things. So, that’s been huge, it’s helped a lot."
"Working from home itself has been a challenge. Especially with the kids home. My husband is a teacher so he is still teaching. Trying to find the balance of when is he going to work, when am I going to work, while still taking care of the kids at the same time. While my one year old started napping, my three year old decided she wasn’t going to nap anymore. Things have just changed. It’s just a whole different feel as a nurse to be home."
"Your home is your work, and your work is your home. You never really ‘leave’ work. You can shut down your computer but it’s right there to open up and start working on something you had put down earlier. It’s important to strike a balance where you shut down your work completely and focus on your life.”
How has COVID-19 changed the Clinical Trials landscape?
“We have been working on a lot of protocols. Which will be great when we start to open things up again. They will roll out when this is over and hopefully we will enroll a lot of patients. They say ‘COVID started but cancer never stopped’. We have to keep treating these patients. It's great that we’ve been able to treat them through this all. Every now and then we’d get a new trial that would come through and we would ‘activate’ these trials at Mass General Cancer Center. We’d get a new protocol here and there and we’d start working on the many steps to get it opened. There were five of us nurses working on opening these trials here at the Cancer Center. We’d divide the trials and each devote a day to working on these protocols. We’d each have one or two that we’d be working on at a time. Since COVID, there’s a list of eleven or so that they want to activate right when they can. There are so many that hopefully when we can get these activated, we’ll enroll more patients than before. It’s promising and exciting to have been able to work on these and push them through faster than we would have before.”
Maggie Joyce, RN
I think why my feelings have changed in a positive way is because I’ve been calling many of the same patients for the last nine or so weeks. I am building some kind of relationship with them over the phone. These are patients that I’ve never even met… but the phone calls have turned more into conversations about weekend plans, how they’re feeling, something to take their mind off things. It also takes my mind off of things.
This interview was conducted on May 15, 2020 and has been edited for clarity.