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For health care workers, a Mother's Day experience like no other

Lauren Engel of Malverne, a critical care nurse treating coronavirus patients at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital, where her mom, Carolyn, is a longtime nurse, says: “I’m thankful to have my mom to support me — going to someone that understands the day in and day out.” Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca

At a time when others are working apart, they experience everything together.

The valor when helping treat the region’s sickest coronavirus patients. The relief of watching as a patient gets to go home. The grief when a patient succumbs to the deadly virus. And that pit in your stomach wondering whether your loved one is safe, even in a building meant for healing.

For the mothers and daughters working together on the front lines against COVID-19 inside Long Island’s hospitals, Mother’s Day will be unlike any they’ve experienced.

While most Americans will forgo Sunday brunch and trips together to the beach, health care personnel remain our most essential workers, indispensable even on Mother’s Day as our nation begins to mend and resume a sense of normality.

For the past eight weeks, they’ve been hailed as heroes and lauded for their courage. They’ve toiled long days with little sleep, watching chaos and tragedy unfold from a birds-eye perch — all while trying to protect their family at home.

Through it all, they’ve had each other. They are the mother-daughter duos keeping us safe in uncertain times. These are their stories:

Carolyn and Lauren Engel

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Most mornings around 7:30, nurse Lauren Engel finishes up her overnight shift caring for critically ill coronavirus patients. Starting a daytime shift in the same hospital is her mom, fellow nurse Carolyn Engel.

It’s not uncommon for the mother-daughter pair to cross paths in their scrubs in the lobby of Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital, before Lauren drives to the family’s Malverne home.

“She’s getting to go home and go to bed, and I’m starting my shift, and we will meet, talk about her night, talk about my day,” Carolyn, 54, a nurse educator who’s worked at Mount Sinai since 2000, said of her daughter, 23.

Once home from the hospital, Lauren’s first stop will be the garage — a routine her mom will repeat later that night: coat and shoes off, uniform into the washing machine and shower.

The women come from a family of registered nurses: Carolyn’s mom, Maria Johansen, 81, is a retired nurse, and Lauren’s younger sister, Jennifer, 20, is studying nursing at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut. Lauren and her grandmother are Adelphi alums, some 40-plus years apart.

As the pandemic hit the metropolitan area disproportionately hard, Lauren turned to her mom — a former critical-care nurse who now teaches nurses at the hospital — for solace, counsel and camaraderie. Reminiscing about a patient with whom she felt a special connection. Venting about a patient who was especially difficult. Coping with a patient’s death.

“My first patient expiration I didn’t take easy,” Lauren said, “but I went to my mom, and we talked about it.”

Her mom told her: “You want to save people … we couldn’t save everyone … We are emotionally attached to our patients.”

Carolyn said her own mom conveyed this wisdom when Carolyn was starting out: “In nursing, she always told me, ‘You will have good days and bad days. Stay focused on the good days, and when you put your head on your pillow at night, always know that you’ve done your best. That’s all any of us can do.’”

After speaking with Carolyn, Lauren said, she understands: “You can’t fix it, but the comfort of realizing you did all you could, and you worked hard, is satisfying enough to put me at ease and peace.”

This Mother’s Day, Carolyn and Lauren won’t be spending most of the holiday together: Lauren’s working overnight Saturday and Sunday.

Paola Rojas and Hellene Ballesteros

Paola Rojas thought she had seen it all as an emergency room technician at Long Island Jewish Valley Stream hospital. Then came the coronavirus. The flood of patients, young and old, succumbing to a virus she’d never heard of months earlier.

“It was the first time in 21 years where I did not know what to do,” Rojas said. “There was a point where I sat in the corner and asked, 'What am I doing? Is this a bad dream?’ ”

But Rojas wasn’t alone. Working alongside her in the ER’s admissions department is her daughter, Hellene Ballesteros.

Together, the Floral Park duo cares for patients while keeping a close eye on each other, from lunch together in the cafeteria to a deep hug in the evenings when it all becomes too much.

“It’s a pretty special bond we have,” said Ballesteros, who is attending classes at Nassau Community College, preparing for nursing school. “We live with each other. We work together. We look out for each other.”

Together, mother and daughter bring comfort through the smallest acts of kindness. Rojas will often provide her phone to patients to FaceTime loved ones who cannot enter the ER. Ballestros is ever-present with a bottle of water or a blanket for patients. 

But the fear and grief can be overwhelming, they say: Early shortages of personal protective gear. Patients coughing only inches from their face. And more death than either woman had experienced.

“You want to help everybody out, but you just can’t,” Ballestros said. “I would go home and cry in the shower.”

On Mother’s Day, the women will share a seafood dinner at home with Rojas’ two other children, Matthew, 20, and Madison, 12. They’ll celebrate their good health and pray for the mothers and daughters who were not as fortunate.

“Mother’s Day is a victory in that we are here with no infection and no deaths in our family,” Rojas said. “We celebrate that we are together.”

And Ballestros will offer a special nod of appreciation to the woman who inspired her to pursue a career in medicine.

“This experience brought us closer,” she said. “You see how many patients have passed away. It could have been me or my mom. It just makes you appreciative of who you have.”

Mary Beth and Kelly Patterson

Two post-shift selfies of her exhausted nurse daughter Kelly’s face — one clad in an N95 mask, the other ringed in an cup-shaped oval left by the mask after 13 hours at work — popped up on Mary Beth Patterson’s iPhone, she recalled Thursday.

It was then she knew she needed to come out of retirement to help nurse coronavirus patients.

“It wasn’t the prettiest of photos, but I guess it got her down here,” said Kelly, 27, a nurse at Stony Brook University Hospital since March 2018.

Mary Beth, 61, was rehired after calling her former manager at Stony Brook, where Kelly works in intensive care treating the coronavirus pandemic. On March 23, Mary Beth drove down from Sunapee, New Hampshire, where she had retired. By March 25, she was back, working her 39th year in the profession.

“I felt the void of not being around patients and taking care of them,” she said, adding: “It’s like riding a bike. You just get right back into it.”

Across the country, state officials have publicly appealed for help from retired medical workers such as Mary Beth, who had put the family’s house up for sale after retiring in 2018.

Now she’s back living there, the hospital has an additional nurse, and Kelly, who lives in nearby St. James, has a new co-worker and confidant: her mom.

Kelly works the night shift, Mary Beth during the day. The women said they feel like family to those in their care, especially now: To limit virus transmission, patients are barred from having any visitors under state law.

On the back deck of Mary Beth’s Stony Brook colonial, mother and daughter gather to share stories about their shifts. 

“I call it our debriefing over ice cream and chocolate,” Mary Beth said.

No patients have died during Mary Beth’s shifts, she said, but at the peak, Kelly said, there would be one to two deaths during each of her shifts.

“I always tell my boyfriend that it’s hard for you to relate to this situation because you don’t see death on a daily basis,” Kelly said. “It is a grim subject, and it’s hard for people to process.”

While at the hospital working, Mary Beth said, “You’re just running, running, running,” with rarely a chance to sit down.

“That debrief, and our time to chat,” Mary Beth said, “helps us to unwind.”

Janice, Arielle and Kelsey Flanagan

It doesn’t take much for Janice Flanagan to get emotional. The third-generation nurse from Malverne will quickly tear up when discussing her coronavirus patients, her overworked co-workers and her two daughters, Arielle, 31, and Kelsey, 25, each themselves in health care professions.

It’s hard to blame Flanagan, an emergency room nurse for more than four decades, nearly all at Long Island Jewish Valley Stream hospital. Before the pandemic, Flanagan would go weeks, or even months, without losing a patient. But in the past two months, she's watched helplessly as multiple patients daily, and even a co-worker, succumbed to the virus.

“Nothing has prepared us for this,” Flanagan said, holding back tears. “It’s like going to war without being prepared for it.”

Kelsey Flanagan, a secretary in the hospital’s radiology department, worries often about her mom’s physical and mental health.

“We definitely feel for mom but try not to talk to her about it because she gets emotional,” she said. “We make sure she has the right gear, with her being on the front lines. It’s been a little stressful, but we are getting through it.”

Nursing runs deep in the Flanagan bloodline.

Janice’s mother, Mary Dowd Leone, and grandmother, Bridget Dowd, were both nurses. So are Janice’s aunt and cousin, while her brother is a paramedic.

“My parents always raised me to help other people, so I just feel it’s a calling,” Janice said.

Arielle, 31, a food service manager at LIJ Forest Hills Hospital, initially pursued a career in hospitality management.

“But I did not feel like I was helping society as much as I could,” she said. “Mom raised us that health care is the best field to get into.”

On Mother’s Day, the Flanagans will try to forget about the virus, if only for a night.

“We will make it an escape from everything,” Kelsey said, “and try not to think about the outside. Let’s enjoy the time that we have.”

Janice, tearing up again, said the holiday is a reminder to focus on life's blessings.

“I am fortunate that I have this Mother’s Day with them,” Janice said, putting her arms around her two daughters. “It’s a time to reflect on what’s really important in your life, and it’s family.”

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