Each morning, Zoila O’Keefe loads her car with enough PPE (personal protective equipment) — masks, gloves, gowns — to protect herself and her patients throughout the day. She’s a home care nurse who sees between five and six patients daily in Westchester County, the Bronx, and Manhattan. These days, two or three of those visits are to COVID-19 survivors recovering at home after hospital stays.

Zoila was born in Cuba and moved to New York as a child. She grew up in Washington Heights and has been a nurse for 30 years, a home care nurse for 13. Two years ago she began working for The New Jewish Home’s Certified Home Health Agency.

Zoila is one of the health care workers who are on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis. In each home she and her colleagues enter to take care of a vulnerable patient, they are walking into the unknown. “It may take them [my patients] a few months to recover fully. My first COVID patient was a survivor of 9/11, of cancer, and now COVID,” she said.

Zoila assesses her patients’ condition and teaches them the correct way to take their medication. She advises them on nutrition, hydration, mobility, safety, and hygiene. “Visiting nurses provide constant reinforcement and clinical observation,” she said. “We also give them a lot of positive vibes. ‘You’re doing well, you look good, your blood pressure is good.’ We’re another set of eyes, and we help them stay positive.”

Her encounters with her patients are at the heart of Zoila’s work, but the protective equipment and behaviors that enable her to protect their health and her own absorb much of her time and energy. 

Despite all the headlines about PPE shortages, she says, “I’m not missing anything. The New Jewish Home has been great. I have what I need, and I have been educated on how to use it. I feel very fortunate.”

Zoila needs to navigate city streets and small elevators. She tries to avoid walking outside in her full complement of PPE — she’ll don it in the lobby of an apartment building, then quickly take it off when she leaves the patient’s home — careful to avoid contaminating herself — and pack it into a bag to drop off in the first trash can she finds. She takes every precaution.  “I have to be healthy to help everyone.”

When Zoila returns in the evening to her house in Westchester County, she has a careful routine for decontaminating herself. “In the garage, I step into a 13-gallon leaf bag, take off everything, put on a robe and slippers, and go into the house — and directly into the shower.”  Only then does she greet her husband.

Amid the heightened sense of anxiety everyone is feeling, though, Zoila is reassuring. “For most people, keeping safe is a combination of wearing a simple mask, distancing, washing your hands and paying attention to what you’re touching.”

Home care nurses like Zoila are health care heroes. Through her warmth, caring, professionalism, and attention to detail, she’s helping to keep New Yorkers safe in a challenging time.

During this National Nurses Week, we would like to thank Zoila — and all of our nurses — for their hard work, professionalism and dedication.