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How a Parma COVID nurse and her patient help each other heal

Michelle Brownlee, R.N., credits her patient for keeping her in the career she loves.

PARMA, Ohio — It's been four months.

Michelle Brownlee, R.N., doesn't usually visit patients at home, but this one is different. She gets out of her car with a dozen pink roses and begins the walk up the driveway, and then she stops, takes a deep breath, and continues up the steps.

The door opens instantly, and 79-year-old Maria Pescrilli stands beaming with a smile and open arms, aching for a hug. The embrace melted away the months since they'd last seen each other.

"Michelle! Oh, it's so good to see you," Maria says while wrapped in Michelle’s arms. "I missed you, I really missed you. Thank you for taking care of me. It's so good to see you."

Michelle and Maria met in December under the worst of circumstances. It was the midst of the winter omicron surge when Maria, her son Gino, and her 99-year-old mother Carmen Forchione all caught COVID-19.

NOTE: We surprised Michelle on GO! Tuesday morning to thank her for all she does. Watch the moment below:

Mother and daughter ended up on the COVID floor of University Hospitals Parma Medical Center. Michelle was one of the nurses on that floor, and was assigned to care for Maria.

Brownlee remembers the chaos of the pandemic surges, changing in and out of protective gear that was often hot and uncomfortable. None of the nurses complained, but it was physically and mentally taxing.

So were the deaths.

Michelle worked at several different suburban UH hospitals, and says she never experienced more patient deaths than she had during the two years of the pandemic. She hated the fact that she became used to knowing the protocols of what to do when a patient died, and questioned if she should continue nursing.

"COVID kind of stole my zest for nursing, because I would walk in and think, 'Okay, I have six COVID patients today, and how am I going to manage that?'" Brownlee remembered. "Our average patient load was three patients, maybe four, and with COVID we were running with five, six, seven patients, and I just started to hate going into work because I felt like I would leave unfulfilled. Like I didn't give every patient every ounce of my time that I could, and I don't like feeling like I wasn't a good nurse."

Maria spent three weeks on Michelle's floor fighting COVID. Her mom Carmen was on the other side of the building, but on the same floor.  

But there was something about Maria.

Each time Michelle went in to check on her, Maria would ask Michelle if she'd eaten lunch or dinner yet, if she was taking a break, if she was taking care of herself. And whatever Michelle did, Maria let her know how much she was appreciated. She did this with all the nurses.

"The whole time you battled COVID, you were selfless," Michelle told Maria all these months later. "All you worried about was everybody but you."

"Well, I don't need to worry about me," Pescrilli said in response, "because I know I'm being well taken care of."

Maria's son Gino was in another hospital fighting COVID, but as with other patients, Michelle was the family link, often calling with updates. 

When Maria learned her mother was dying down the hall on the ninth floor COVID-19 unit, Michelle and other members of the care team organized a final goodbye with the support of resident physician Dr. Julia Manzo the assistance of respiratory therapy Nurse Manager Melinda Lakatos and Nurse Emily Ford.

It wasn't an easy task. Maria was on Airvo, a high-flow heated pure oxygen, at the maximum amount of 60 liters. The nurse manager contacted respiratory therapy to put Maria on a non-rebreather mask, which delivers 100% oxygen. Pescrilli was also on a PureWick external catheter.

The staff transported Maria to her mother's room and maneuvered the beds so the pair could face each other and hold hands. When Maria spoke to her mother in Italian, the elderly woman's eyes flickered recognition. Though she was actively dying, Maria and the nurses were certain Carmina could hear her.  

Michelle stood nearby and wept.

"I appreciate and I thank you so much for all the things that you have done for me," Maria said, "because without you guys, I probably will never be able to say goodbye to mom."

Afterward, Maria asked Michelle if she could help with the final arrangements, since she and her son were still battling COVID in the hospital. Michelle made a list and kept her promise.

Meanwhile, the pandemic had taken its toll on Michelle.

"They don't teach you how to be a nurse in a pandemic in nursing school," she admitted. "They throw you in it and you depend on your coworkers, and I've had the best everywhere I've been. I mean, we've gotten each other through a lot of tough times."

She had been weighing the decision whether or not to quit for weeks, until she met Maria.

"If this is what nursing is gonna be for the rest of my life, I, I can't do it," Brownlee said. "It’s devastating. It took a huge toll on me mentally and emotionally to deal with COVID day in and day out, and to have somebody like Maria — who just to sit next to her, you feel the positive energy that she had — and to be so positive, it's immeasurable. The bond that we have is immeasurable."

Michelle wrote Maria a letter, but then decided it was better to hand-deliver it and read it to her personally.

"You have left an unerasable mark in my life with your action, your will to fight," Michelle wrote. "It had a profound impact on me. I promise, you did more for me during that time than I could have ever done for you."

Watch Michelle read the letter below:

Editor's note: the video above is from an unrelated story on long haul COVID published on May 4, 2022.

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