After they graduated from high school in North Carolina, Guillermo Vargas and his brother Jonathan wanted to join the Marines. The Mexican immigrants were prepared to serve the U.S. by donning military fatigues and battling enemies overseas.
The Marines turned the Vargas brothers away, Guillermo and Jonathan say, because of their immigration status. Born in Mexico and brought to the U.S. as children without documentation, the brothers were approved for a program that shields kids like them from deportation. But the program doesn’t confer all the rights of citizenship or permanent legal residency.
So today, the brothers serve on a different front line – in the battle against COVID-19. Guillermo, 32, and Jonathan, 30, are both registered nurses in the intensive care unit at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Instead of wearing camo and carrying military-grade weapons to battle flesh-and-blood enemies, the brothers don personal protective equipment – disposable gowns, gloves and masks – to protect themselves against the highly transmissible novel coronavirus.
The daily battle they wage while providing treatment to COVID-19 patients in the ICU exacts a heavy emotional and mental toll on the brothers.
Several times, both siblings have cared for patients over a period of weeks, getting to know them and the relatives who call to check on their loved ones. Some COVID-19 patients have briefly improved, only to quickly deteriorate and die. “It does feel like you’re in a never-ending battle, the way the pandemic is going right now,” Jonathan says. “You’re fighting for people’s lives, and patients keep streaming in. We’re exhausted, we’re tired, we’re mentally burned out.”
Jonathan recalls being present as another nurse held an iPad so a COVID-19 patient near death could speak to his relatives one final time. “It was pretty difficult,” he says. “The patient was taking his last breaths surrounded by strangers.” Watching COVID-19 patients die without the company of loved ones “is one of the hardest things we do,” Guillermo says. “The first thing you think about is your family. You think ‘this could be my mom, my dad, my brother.’ It’s very sad.”
In the first weeks of the pandemic, Wake Forest Baptist didn’t allow family members to visit COVID-19 patients because of the highly-transmissible nature of the virus, the brothers say. Forsyth County, where Winston-Salem is located, was then among the handful of counties reporting the highest number of novel coronavirus cases in North Carolina. The rate leveled off, more or less, during the summer. Cases are now rising again: In the medical intensive care unit where the Vargas brothers work, most of the 32 beds for COVID-19 patients have been filled in recent weeks. Overall, the hospital has about 70 beds for COVID-19 patients; officials can increase or decrease the number of COVID-19 beds, depending on the need for them, a Wake Forest Baptist spokeswoman says.
Stressful Immigration Status
The two siblings spent their early years in a poor area in the state of