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Frontline families: The overlooked toll on the loved ones of hospital workers

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As the spouse of a nurse who works with COVID-19 patients, Ricardo “Richie” Sanchez is frank in his summary of this year. 

“Extremely stressful, excruciatingly stressful at times,” he said, but also “very humbling and enlightening.”

On the job, hospital workers have faced unforeseen and grueling challenges since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Long hours, hospital units stretched beyond capacity, and far too much death — these are now familiar associations with the hardships endured by frontline medical workers. 

Less often do we hear the stories of the family members of hospital workers, and the personal challenges that families have faced in order to support loved ones whose work involves close proximity with COVID-19.

Lilly Sanchez, a charge nurse at University Medical Center, has had “a hell of year,” Richie said. So has he, and so have their two young children. When the pandemic hit, it wasn’t just Lilly’s life that was reconfigured because of the work she did with COVID-19 patients; it entailed a range of big and small changes for her entire family.

“I was extremely scared because I felt strongly that we were going to get sick. I didn’t know, but I would bet on it, that it was just a matter of time,” Richie said, remembering when the first big wave of COVID cases hit El Paso last summer. 

Lilly Sanchez watches her children play at their home on her day off. Since the pandemic began, Sanchez, a nurse, has feared that her work will put her family at risk. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Richie has a heart condition that places him at greater risk for complications connected to COVID-19. He had a heart surgery shortly before the start of the pandemic, and said that his fear of adverse consequences from the virus has been crippling at times. 

“I was scared of dying early — scared of dying when my kids were small,” he said. 

More than 3,000 health care workers died in the past year from COVID-19 — a staggering number. That doesn’t include the loved ones of frontline workers. 

In the past year, El Paso Matters has spoken with a wide range of hospital workers in our coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve talked to hospital housekeeping staff about their critical work in pandemic safety, El Paso nurses who protested to improve safety standards, and a phlebotomist whose husband died from COVID (she believed that she transmitted the deadly virus to him). 

We first talked to Lilly last fall, when she and her whole family tested positive for COVID-19. 

At the time, Lilly described bringing COVID-19 home to her family as her worst nightmare, then turned into a reality. Now, a year into the pandemic, we checked back in with the Sanchez family to see how they are doing. 

The necessary risk-analysis for frontline families

When the pandemic began, the Sanchez family had a lot of candid conversations about the level of risk they faced, given that Lilly would be working with COVID-19 patients. 

“We kinda had to be like, ‘OK, when we’re home, we have to pretend like I’m not a potential vector. I can’t come home and wear a mask full-time, so everybody has to assume this basic level of risk because I’m knowingly going into rooms of people that have COVID. We have the best protection, but still,” Lilly said. 

For Richie, that (coupled with overall concerns about the pandemic) meant halting the bike repair business that he ran out of their home. For the kids, ages 4 and 6, it meant even stricter rules about approaching their mom after she got home from work, and a new sense that they too could be a potential vector because of their mother’s increased risk of exposure to COVID.

“(The kids are) very cautious around people, like if we’re out in a park and somebody comes close to them, they run away and hide,” Lilly said. “Especially my 6 year old, if you ask her, she’ll be like, I don’t want to get them sick.”

Richie Sanchez repairs a bicycle tire in his home workshop. Sanchez, who has health conditions that put him at higher risk of COVID complications, temporarily closed his business, RadDog Bikes, as a precaution. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The situation reached a breaking point for the Sanchez family last summer, when El Paso COVID-19 cases spiked. Lilly was working at Las Palmas then, and she and Richie both had concerns about patient COVID-19 testing protocol. 

“I asked (Lilly) straight up, would you quit? And she said, ‘Yeah, I would if you asked me to, and it would be devastating,’” Richie said. “She said something like, it would cause tension in our marriage, which is true.” 

Both Lilly and Richie felt torn during this period, they said. On the one hand, there had never been a more important time for Lilly to be working at the hospital. On the other hand, the stress that her family felt because of that risk was seeming unbearable at times. 

Ultimately, Lilly ended up moving to University Medical Center, where she took a job as a medical-surgical nurse in September. When asked what that means, Lilly said, “I take care of six patients at a time, and none of them are about to die.” Soon thereafter, she was promoted to the supervisory role of charge nurse. 

The whole family gets COVID

Although Lilly always took infectious disease precautions when coming home from the hospital, she became more stringent about them in the context of COVID-19. 

She got in the habit of taking off her outer layer of clothing in the backyard and spraying down her backpack with Lysol before entering the house. She’d then put the clothes from that day straight into the washing machine, and head to the shower before coming in contact with any family members. 

Aria Luz Sanchez, 6, talks about choosing colors for a page in her coloring book. Aria Luz and her brother both tested positive for COVID in the fall, though they showed no symptoms. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

But despite those precautions and the rigorous precautions she took at work, Lilly ended up getting COVID-19 in October. 

There was a lag between when Lilly first got sick and when she eventually tested positive. During that period, she was careful to avoid exposing Richie or the kids.

“I wore a surgical mask (at home), I stopped sleeping in the same room, my husband wore a mask, I ate my meals outside so that I wasn’t taking my mask off in the house,” Lilly said in an interview last fall. 

But then both kids and Richie also tested positive. The children were asymptomatic, but Richie did have severe symptoms for a short period of time. 

After dreading the possibility of getting COVID for so many months, Richie said he was surprised by how he felt when he tested positive. 

“(It was a) really strange feeling — it was a bit of relief, honestly,” Richie said, remarking how difficult the anticipation and fear had been leading up to that point. 

“I was like, ‘Alright, here it is,’” he said. 

Although the Sanchez family emerged on the other side of contracting COVID relatively unscathed, the fact that they had COVID-19 did not mean they stopped being vigilant about ongoing risks or the potential for getting it again. Nor did they relax their practices after Lilly was vaccinated in December. 

But now, a year since the start of the pandemic, Richie has been vaccinated too, and so have several of their parents. 

Now, things are starting to feel a little less stressful for the Sanchez family. 

The vaccine means more hugs

Speaking with Lilly and Richie on a sunny afternoon in March, their reflections of the past year are punctuated by squeals and laughter from their two kids, playing with their grandpa. It’s the first time Lilly’s father had seen his grandchildren since the start of the pandemic. Lilly said he got the second shot of the vaccine and promptly bought a plane ticket to El Paso (he lives in Florida). 

“When I was the only one that was vaccinated, it didn’t really make me feel that different,” Lilly said, explaining that she didn’t begin to feel a true sense of safety until recently, now that all the adults in her immediate circle have been vaccinated. 

Richie Sanchez kisses his wife, Lilly, at their home on a Sunday morning. Lilly, a nurse, said that the pandemic is the first time in her career that she has experienced the emotional burden of losing patients regularly. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Richie said that he did feel immediate relief when Lilly was vaccinated, and it’s increased tenfold now that he and other family members are vaccinated too.

“For example, Lilly’s dad’s here, I can hug him — I missed hugging people! I’m happy to hug people again, basically, that’s what it boils down to,” Richie said.  

“The COVID vaccine is my hall pass to hug, so I love it. It’s awesome.”

Lessons from a painful year

For both Lilly and Richie, this pandemic year has ushered in deep and profound transformation. 

For Lilly, she responded to the challenges of COVID-19 by stepping up as a leader at her workplace, and changing the way she saw herself in the process. 

Looking back on the year, Lilly remarked about how her confidence has grown as a nurse through the personal challenges that the job entailed. 

“This year, especially with safety issues surrounding pandemic nursing, I have stepped into more of a role of a preceptor. I have a responsibility to be a role model because there has been a lot of turnover in nursing,” Lilly said. “This year in particular, I’ve felt more like a leader.” 

Radish, the Sanchez family dog, enjoys attention from Richie and Lilly in their front garden. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

For Richie, the changes of this year have added up to a major perspective shift. 

“Most of this stuff doesn’t matter from the day-to-day,” Richie said. “Having a good day in the park, appreciating the good food we have to eat, (Lilly) coming home and me being able to have somebody to hug — to share all the stresses and all the beautiful days. Just having support, having family, not being alone, having love in your life. That’s really all that matters to me.”

Cover photo: Lilly and Richie Sanchez and their children, Aria Luz and Zeme. Lilly’s fear of contracting COVID in her work as a nurse and then infecting her family materialized last fall. The children tested positive but were asymptomatic; Richie and Lilly experienced more severe symptoms but recovered at home. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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René Kladzyk

René Kladzyk is a musician and writer based in El Paso. She performs original music as Ziemba, and has written for publications including Teen Vogue, i-D, and The Creative Independent. Her new album came out on Sister Polygon Records in September 2020, and she is hopeful that we’ll be able to enjoy live music together IRL again soon enough.

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