NIH’ers Volunteer on Frontlines of Covid-19
Lola Saidkhodjaeva no longer fears Covid-19.
The global pandemic that has caused a national death toll of more than 125,000 has emboldened the young registered nurse. Soon after landing her first full-time nursing position in NICHD’s intramural program, Saidkhodjaeva found herself unable to work from home since she could not interact with Clinical Center patients. The SARS-CoV-2 virus had shut down NIH and much of the country. Yet, Saidkhodjaeva, 26, knew the need was overwhelming for nurses across the country.
Her Clinical Center colleague Dr. Joseph Chinquee suggested they sign up as volunteers to support HHS missions during the pandemic. Chinquee, a volunteer paramedic in his home community of Mt. Airy , Md., and a doctor of health sciences, is the scientific and clinical manager of NCI’s Laboratory of Pathology. He is also a seasoned volunteer, first with the Ebola outbreak in Liberia a few years ago, then in Puerto Rico helping with recovery efforts after Hurricane Maria. They both responded immediately when HHS put out the call.
Within hours, they were deployed to assist the Public Health Service in the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. During their month-long experience, they have witnessed the Navajo Nation surpass New York state for the highest per capita SARS-CoV-2 infection rate in the United States.
The two first-generation immigrants say they have worked hard to get to NIH and wanted to give back.
“At the NIH, I’ve been given so many opportunities and rewards,” Chinquee said. “I will never stop giving back, but I would not be able to volunteer for these missions without the full support of my NCI leadership.”
Both Chinquee and Saidkhodjaeva said their supervisors and senior leaders were extremely supportive. Saidkhodjaeva is a research nurse specialist in the lab of Dr. Constantine Stratakis. Both Stratakis and Dr. Forbes Porter, NICHD clinical director, as well as Executive Officer Rodney Rivera, approved and signed paperwork on a weekend within hours, giving her the opportunity to deploy quickly.
Chinquee’s branch chief, Dr. Kenneth Aldape, and NCI Executive Officer Donna Siegle approved his request within minutes of receiving the memorandum of understanding that allowed Chinquee to deploy with only 24 hours’ notice.
They worked 12-hour night shifts at the Northern Navajo Medical Center on a medical-surgical floor converted to treat Covid-19 patients. During the day, they tried to respond to work emails and conference calls. Their volunteer duty ended June 10. They were quarantined for 2 weeks before being allowed to return to the Clinical Center.
In their last full week, they both assisted in the emergency department, triaging patients. They were also assigned to help in a makeshift tent outside, screening potential Covid-19 patients.
“The most challenging part has been seeing families lose loved ones,” Saidkhodjaeva said. As many families have multiple generations living together in tight quarters, numerous family members in the same house have fallen ill. Many homes do not have running water or electricity, which makes handwashing impractical.
The most rewarding part, she said, is the gratitude that families express continually, despite the trauma. “They’re always saying thank you and telling us how much they appreciate what we do.”
The unusual and exhausting stint also has given her renewed confidence.
“I’m not afraid anymore,” Saidkhodjaeva said. “If NIH takes SARS-CoV-2 patients as part of a research study, I wouldn’t hesitate to volunteer. This experience has made me realize that my clinical skills are pretty strong.”