The pandemic’s effects on health care workers might sound like old news. After all, vaccines are more common now, and hospitals are seemingly returning to a pre-pandemic normal. Shouldn’t overflowing ICUs and understaffing be things of the past?

According to healthcare workers interviewed by the News, those struggles are, in fact, not over. The following interview was conducted over the phone with Karen Reyes Benzi, a registered nurse (BSN, RN) and Rukiye Maras, a medical assistant (MA/ACAII).

Responses have been lightly edited for clarity. 


How has being exposed to Covid-19 at a higher level affected you? 

Karen Reyes Benzi: “I was one of the first nurses to get sick. In March of 2020 right in mid-march before we started even wearing masks, I became ill and I was out of work for 50 days.”

 “I was immediately concerned that the staff would be very upset that I had been sick, and I had been at work. So I immediately notified my boss, and let her know: ‘Please tell everybody that I am sick, because if they need to get checked, get checked.’ So I took it upon myself to call or email or text as many staff members as possible, because my boss felt uncomfortable, and she was worried about patient privacy. I felt it was important that they know so they could contact the COVID hotline and get tested.”

How has relocating work areas/floors during the pandemic affected you?

Karen Reyes Benzi: “So when I came back my team had stayed here in the hospital, but other cancer infusion centers moved out to protect those patients. Our patients can get sick so fast that we wanted to stay in the hospital, in case they have to go to the emergency room because they’re so fragile. When I came back, I did help those other units; so I went to North Haven and helped the solid tumor teams there on a few occasions with their patients. They were super proud of the health staff, but it was very stressful because their team was split up between here and North Haven, and it was just a different situation. 

“I also worked in phase-one clinical trials area, helped with head and neck cancer patients, which is another clinic in another section of the hospital over by Walgreens, and I actually really enjoyed working with those teams because, first of all, they made you feel very welcomed, and two I had felt very bad about missing all that time of work. Then I got to see what the other teams had to go through to protect patients and keep things going, and I felt a lot of pride for them. They told me their stories and a lot of the patients were able to tell what it meant to them to separate being cared for in a different area. 

Rukiye Maras: “To prevent the spread of COVID the hospital had to take precautions. I work in an ambulatory care unit, we limited the majority of our patients to teelvisit, to limit the spread of COVID 19. Therefore, the senses of our patients had dropped dramatically, and many of us had to relocate our main work floors. I had to work at the Extended Care Center as a receptionist which was outside of the scope of my practice. I then worked at the North Haven satellite office and at Yale’s Saint Raphael’s Covid Tent.”

How has relocating your home during the pandemic affected you? 

Rukiye Maras: “When the pandemic curve started, I had a family member who had medical conditions with comorbidity so it was very risky for me to go home after work and potentially expose them to the virus. But this didn’t stop me from being a shield to fight this battle. I had to stay in a hotel for some time and I was very desperate to find a place to live. I searched and asked around every night and wasn’t able to find anything. I was constantly asking my manager if the hospital had any resources for employees who had to relocate and the process was under-work and they didn’t have anything yet. I recommended that they should use the yale dorms and my manager, Nicole, said that she would mention it at the meetings. I had also asked if she knew anyone who had available places. She said her mom did and she told me she would let me know. If there were angels in this world, it would be them. They rented me their in-law apartment until the curve was under control.”

How have longer working hours and staff shortages during the pandemic affected you?

Karen Reyes Benzi: “We were lighter for a good part of the year. It’s this year that we are definitely working more overtime. There’s less staff and that’s due to a lot of things. There’s a lot of changes in healthcare, and then the patients are sicker, and then a lot of people in general who couldn’t get health care things done last year are getting them done now. So less staff are at let’s say work getting surgeries they couldn’t get last year because of closing, and I just think that right now we’re busy because of staffing and our patients are very sick patients, to begin with.”

Rukiye Maras: “When COVID hit, I had a vacation planned for two weeks, cancelled it and went right to work. This year, because of staff shortages, I couldn’t take a vacation for the second year in a row.” 

Were there any positives for you during the pandemic? 

Karen Reyes Benzi: “Certainly, in any crisis if you’re the witness to people being selfless and brave and courageous even when the world seems upside-down — that is a remarkable thing to witness. I think our hospital did amazing things. I just think they did amazing things very quickly but we also had the personnel, the money, the brains, and the mission.”

“We have the values that a lot of medical systems do not have, so we were kind of lucky in that way. I think all of our staff were very very brave and anybody who’s had an opportunity to get vaccinated is very, very brave. I served for 26 years in the Navy and I’ve given hundreds of vaccines, and I received a lot of vaccines. So I was not afraid of it at all and I understand the history of vaccinations. The way I see it, I have a responsibility to lead by example and to take a chance. I have nothing to lose. I have no children, my husband is in the same value system as me and so we felt that we were lives of service. It was our responsibility to take that chance because some in our generations before us got yellow fever vaccines and the smallpox vaccines, the polio vaccines and they didn’t know everything about that either. So to me getting a vaccination is very routine, and it’s not some big deal. I’m very proud of the healthcare system I work with and the people — absolutely they did amazing things, they still do.” 

“I went to school with a bunch of kids from first grade and I want to tell you, the majority of the class became nurses. And all of those women have been working in this field to this day. My best friend became a nurse later, and she works at the VA hospital. She was arms deep in taking care of COVID, and I think about how we were raised — We went to Catholic school and we were taught about giving of ourselves and caring about people. And I’m very proud of those women that I went to first grade with who are nurses now. It’s really about how we were raised. You ask yourself when you’re a little kid: ‘What I am going to be when I grow up?’. And you don’t know what that’s all going to mean. This is a pretty big deal, this is really a worldwide dilemma and here they are facing it.”

Rukiye Maras: Every day at Yale’s Saint Raphael’s campus, we were in contact with hundreds of patients being tested who were potentially positive. Along with that, we were under very harsh conditions like the weather, constant workload, and standing on your feet for hours without any complaint:  because I knew I was part of a solution and it was an honor for me.

Although COVID has been and continues to be hard on everyone, health care workers have been fighting at a higher level. Regardless of their tough jobs, they don’t complain, instead taking pride in what they do. They should be recognized and supported — especially now.