The woman was dying. The doctor knew it. The family knew it. And Lilliam Nistal knew it, too.
Nistal was just two years removed from graduating as a registered nurse and had been assigned to a hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The patient, a Cuban, wasn’t conscious and she said the doctor told her there wasn’t much else they could do to save her.
No, she thought. There is always something to do. So, she held the patient’s hand.
“The family wasn’t there at the moment, but I promised them I’d be at her bedside,” she said. “I kept telling her she was loved. That she was funny. That she was not alone. I felt bad I couldn’t do more.”
But that moment more than three decades ago still sticks with her today. And it also provided her a foundational philosophy she has carried with her throughout her career: “Nurses are the soul of the hospital,” she said. “We help bring the human touch.”
Late Phone Calls
It is Nurse Appreciation Week and amid a global pandemic, few occupations have garnered as much attention and praise as those who have been on the frontlines caring for and comforting those afflicted with COVID-19. The pandemic highlighted stories of nurses working long, emotionally draining hours as millions of people contracted the virus.
Many of those who got the virus were scared. Most survived. But the numbers of those who have died so far are staggering. To date, more than 3.2 million deaths globally and more than 578,000 deaths in the United States.
In Puerto Rico, where Nistal works at Amgen’s manufacturing site as a nurse and is occupational health manager, COVID cases saw some of their biggest spikes in December. The U.S. island territory of 3.2 million has had more than 167,000 cases and more than 2,340 deaths since the onset of the pandemic, according to a New York Times database.
Margie Joubert, Amgen director of Environmental Health, Safety and Sustainability said she remembered Nistal at the peak of the pandemic taking calls from staff members who had tested positive for COVID-19.
She said she has shown a deep level of compassion and empathy throughout the pandemic, but that has also been her trademark since joining the company in 2011.
“I recall receiving a call from an associate who had just been notified that they had tested positive for COVID-19. The staff member was quite distressed. I passed the phone to Lilliam and saw how calmly she listened to the staff member’s concerns and fears, how much empathy and caring she demonstrated as she answered all questions and reassured them that all will be okay,” Joubert said. “She even asked to talk with the spouse to provide guidance and support. I was so touched to witness this exchange and was feeling so blessed to have her leading our occupational health clinic.”
Part of History
Nila Cainglit, Amgen director of occupational health, said that nurse teams across multiple Amgen sites have been working tirelessly to navigate the challenges of the pandemic response and maintaining a healthy and safe workplace by managing COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and, now, vaccinations.
The Puerto Rico site had just completed vaccinations and Nistal said it has been gratifying to be part of the process that will help the world emerge from the pandemic.
“This is a part of history,” Nistal said. “I tell my nurses that this is a moment in our lifetime and we are doing our part to get through it.”
Nistal comes from a family of medical providers: a brother who is a pharmacist, a sister who is a medical technologist and a son, daughter and two nieces who are also all nurses.
Her father was a truck driver and her mother was a housewife. Both were skeptical when Nistal said she wanted to get her degree in nursing. She was just a teenager, but she felt destined to have a career in nursing.
“I was stubborn,” Nistal said. “I didn’t want to do anything else.”
Nistal said she has seen a lot of difficult moments, including one where she fought for a mother to be in the same room with her baby as he died. But she has also witnessed some incredible highlights of lives being saved and the joy on family’s faces when they’re told their loved one is going to make it.
She said during Hurricane Maria, when Puerto Rico was battered by the Category 5 storm in 2017, she fed off the resilience and compassion shown by Amgen staff. When her mother’s home was destroyed by the storm, she said everyone was kind to her as she juggled the personal tragedy while also helping others displaced by the disaster.
That is what nurses do, she said. They help – often beyond just triage and treatment.
“We get close to the families. We are the ones whispering to the patient, ‘I’m here. I’m holding your hand,’” Nistal said. “I sometimes think nurses are born with this in them.”
And it has always been in her.