Frontline worker, pandemic mom: How one nurse did it all
The pandemic dealt Yarleny Roa-Dugan her toughest challenges yet. But the nurse and mother of two refuses to let that slow her down for long. Episode 3 of our podcast “Stronger.”
Yarleny Roa-Dugan is not easily fazed. In her life, she’s weathered young motherhood, an early divorce, and the daily pressures of her job as a labor and delivery nurse. But the pandemic was her toughest challenge yet.
Along with all the exhaustion that parents and frontline workers were facing throughout the pandemic, Ms. Roa-Dugan had to run the household and care for her own family when they were diagnosed with COVID-19.
“We’re going into the profession wanting to help out, take care of people,” she says. “But this pandemic put us all into a bind. Do you take care of other people, or do you take care of your family?”
Still, she’s forging ahead. And she’s planning not just to survive the pandemic, but to come out of it wiser – with her optimism and determination fully intact.
“Sometimes you learn the hard way, and this pandemic was a lesson,” she says. “We came out of it stronger together.”
Yarleny Roa-Dugan: I left the hospital in May 2020.
Samantha Laine Perfas: Why did you choose to step away? Was it voluntary? Were you part of layoffs? Like, what was the situation there?
Roa-Dugan: Yeah. So it was voluntary, even though it didn’t feel voluntary. It felt like I had no other choice. Patients were not being tested. Visitors were still allowed. And they were not giving you the protection. The stress level was very high, very high.
Jessica Mendoza: This is Yarleny Roa-Dugan.
Roa-Dugan: I was born in Colombia, moved to the United States when I was 15 years old.
Laine Perfas: Yarleny is a health care worker –
Roa-Dugan: – a labor and delivery nurse, more specifically –
Laine Perfas: – and a mom, with two kids.
Roa-Dugan: So [a] 14 year-old-boy and a three-year-old girl.
Mendoza: In other words, she’s part of the two most exhausted demographics of the pandemic: working moms and frontline workers. Yarleny is who we’re talking about when we talk about the women fighting to care for their families. And care for the rest of us, too.
Laine Perfas: I’m Samantha Laine Perfas.
Mendoza: And I’m Jessica Mendoza. This is “Stronger” –
Laine Perfas: – what women have lost to this pandemic, and how they’re winning it back.
Laine Perfas: In this episode: The Nurse.
Mendoza: Like with everyone else in this series, we started talking to Yarleny in March. And it became clear to us almost right away: Yarleny is not easily fazed.
Laine Perfas: Part of that is her job. Dealing with pregnant humans everyday takes someone who can pivot quickly, and think on their feet.
Roa-Dugan: We have to be prepared for whatever comes in. We don’t know when the babies are coming, even the ones that are planned. It’s still up to the baby.
Mendoza: The other part is that Yarleny has spent years building up tolerance for high stress situations. She’s 33, but she became a mom pretty young.
Roa-Dugan: Had my son at 18 years old. Got married ‘cause that’s what a good girl does, right?
Laine Perfas: And she figured out how to raise her son during the day while going to school at night. It was not a walk in the park.
Roa-Dugan: It took me six years to graduate with an associate’s ‘cause I was going part time. My schedule at school had to be around babysitting, so that was hard. I thought I was never going to end my schooling. But I did it.
Mendoza: You’d think she would get some kind of reward for powering through in that situation. Instead what she got was a divorce.
Laine Perfas: When you look at divorce rates by occupation, nursing has some of the highest in the country. Not long after she graduated and started her first job as a nurse, Yarleny found herself a single mom.
Roa-Dugan: It was a rough year, which I don’t remember much because I just worked really hard. I don’t know how I did it. But women are incredible and we just kind of rise to the occasion.
Mendoza: Yarleny married again a few years later – to her current husband, Leo. And they had a little girl, Leya. You can kind of hear her in the background there. Leya was 3 at the time, and insisted on sitting with her mom during our conversations.
Mendoza: Can I just say as an aside, you are very calm with your daughter basically crawling all over you right now. It’s adorable.
Roa-Dugan: She does this whenever I’m at home.
Laine Perfas: That’s so funny.
Roa-Dugan: She’s attached to my hip all the time.
Mendoza: Props to you, you are definitely a pandemic mom.
Mendoza: We’ll hear more –
Laine Perfas: – a lot more! –
Mendoza: – from Leya later. But this is all to say, Yarleny is pretty unflappable. Her whole life has been all about multitasking, pushing herself, doing everything she has to do and then some. She’s not afraid of working hard. And yet: 2020 going into 2021 was still one of the toughest years of her life.
Laine Perfas: A couple more things before we get into the details of Yarleny’s year, because they’re important to who she is as a person and to her story. First is that Yarleny loves being a nurse.
Roa-Dugan: I decided on labor and delivery when I was having my baby. So I was that little 18-year-old not knowing what I was doing.
Mendoza: She remembers the nurses who took care of her at the time and wants to pay it forward.
Roa-Dugan: I want to work with girls like me that, they don’t know what – what’s going on. I like having that opportunity to at least be somebody that they can count on at that moment.
Laine Perfas: And for all the stress involved with helping people give birth –
Roa-Dugan: – most of the time it’s very happy. We are having birthdays every day, every night.
Mendoza: One of Yarleny’s favorite things is the lullaby.
Roa-Dugan: The dad would come out and push a button and then a lullaby would play all throughout the hospital, letting everybody know that there was a baby born.
Laine Perfas: That’s so sweet.
Roa-Dugan: And that was awesome. I love pushing that button. [Chuckles] The doctors love pushing the button.
Mendoza: The second thing to know is that since 2017, Yarleny had been working at two hospitals. She asked us not to name them. But at one – we’ll call it “the county hospital” – she was working full time, 12-hour shifts at least three days a week. At the other – which we’ll call “the private hospital” – she was working on a “per diem” basis.
Roa-Dugan: For per diem, I had to work one shift per week.
Laine Perfas: Got it. And was that to supplement the income of your full-time job?
Mendoza: A couple years ago the health care staffing organization AMN did a survey of 20,000 registered nurses across the country. It found that 22% worked a second nursing job.
Laine Perfas: Yarleny had already been kind of unhappy at her part time job at the private hospital, even before the pandemic. But the money helped. Yarleny says that after pooling her earnings from both jobs, she made more than $80,000 in 2019.
Mendoza: That year, CNBC came out with a report that listed the living wage for a family of four for every state. For Nevada it was a bit more than $67,000 a year – which put Yarleny’s family in a pretty comfortable spot.
Laine Perfas: But as the pandemic’s first wave began to peak, Yarleny grew more and more uncomfortable with how the hospital was handling the crisis. Especially, she says, when she compared it to how her employers at the county were dealing with it.
Roa-Dugan: It was a stark difference. Like, at one place everyone had to wear N95s when going into a patient’s room. All the patients get tested as soon as they are admitted. At the other hospital, you had to beg for an N95.
Mendoza: She says that during that time, she tried to speak out.
Roa-Dugan: As things got worse with safety and short staffing, I was more outspoken and the company didn’t like that.
Mendoza: We reached out to the hospital for comment. A spokesperson from their corporate headquarters told us in an email that their hospitals have always complied with CDC guidance around COVID-19 protocols.
Laine Perfas: They said, quote, “The safety of our patients and colleagues is our number one priority.”
Mendoza: We should also note that Yarleny is an active member of the Nevada service workers’ union, SEIU Local 1107. During the pandemic, the union held a number of protests at hospitals. Among other things, they criticized the treatment of health care workers.
Laine Perfas: Despite all that, Yarleny struggled with the idea of quitting. Mainly because she didn’t want to leave her coworkers in a lurch.
Roa-Dugan: That’s who you go to work for, pretty much, because you know how much you suffer when you’re there and you really need help and you call everyone and nobody comes. So every time they called me, I always tried to go and help, even if it was for six hours, half a shift, whatever I could do.
We’re going into the profession wanting to help out, take care of people. But this pandemic put us all into a bind. Do you take care of other people, or do you take care of your family?
Mendoza: That internal conflict between frustration and guilt – that’s Yarleny’s story. But it’s also the story of so many health care workers throughout the pandemic. (And in the U.S., three-quarters of health care workers are women.)
Laine Perfas: There’s not yet a ton of data available on the mental health of frontline workers during the pandemic. But one study surveyed more than 600 health care workers in New York City in April 2020.
Jessi Gold: And that study said 57% had acute stress, which is a measure of PTSD.
Mendoza: That’s Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist and assistant professor at the School of Medicine at Washington University in St. Louis. She sees a lot of health care workers and medical students in her practice.
Gold: We’ve always had a mental health problem in health care workers. This isn’t something new. So those of us who have worked with this group, were looking at COVID and going: this is going to be really compounding.
Laine Perfas: It’s even more stressful when you have a family at home to think about and care for. Another survey, this one from the University of Utah, found that 20% of health care workers very seriously thought about leaving the workforce during the pandemic.
Gold: When you think about how much time, money, energy, purpose – everything that we’ve done to be where we are? I mean, it’s a lot to give up.
Mendoza: In the end, Yarleny quit her part-time job at the private hospital.
Roa-Dugan: That was the best thing I could have done. I was still stressed out – just regular stressed out from thinking about the pandemic, of course. But oh, it felt liberating. I felt like I had taken a weight off of me. My husband and my family felt the difference as well, because when Mom is stressed out, it affects everybody in the house.
Laine Perfas: What do they say? “Happy wife, happy life”?
Roa-Dugan: Yes. [Chuckles]
Mendoza: But 2020 being 2020, that feeling of relief didn’t last very long.
Laine Perfas: It does get better for Yarleny eventually – but first it gets worse.
Mendoza: Stay with us.
Amelia Newcomb: Hi everyone! I’m Amelia Newcomb, the Monitor’s managing editor. Most of us know that the pandemic hit working women hard. But we may not be as aware of the amazing resilience women have shown in response. They’ve kept families moving forward, bolstered co-workers, rallied after job loss – and in the process, they’ve offered us windows on building a better future. These are the stories of “Stronger.” And if you’re enjoying them, I hope you’ll support more work like this by subscribing to The Christian Science Monitor. Just visit csmonitor.com/subscribe and join our community. Again, that’s csmonitor.com/subscribe. And thanks for listening.
Mendoza: When we left Yarleny, she’d just quit her part time job at the private hospital. It felt like the right decision. But then a couple weeks after she quit, her husband Leo injured his right hand – his dominant hand – at work.
Laine Perfas: Leo, as we mentioned, is a carpenter. And the injury was bad enough that he couldn’t use the hand. So he couldn’t work or do much at home. Not only was that a second, unexpected pay cut for the family. But Yarleny suddenly also had to run the household alone.
Roa-Dugan: Personally, I felt lots of responsibility because I was the only one bringing money into the house.
Mendoza: This is Yarleny during our last Zoom conversation before Sam and I went to Las Vegas to see her.
Roa-Dugan: Even though he was getting unemployment, it was not the same. It was very stressful but I didn’t say anything. He was already stressed out. So I felt that I had to just bring the strength to the household.
Laine Perfas: During that time, did you ever regret quitting the other job?
Roa-Dugan: I am a person that looks at the glass half full. [Chuckles] So I always try to look at the positive. So I actually took it as it was meant to be. I was supposed to quit so I could take care of my husband at home.
Laine Perfas: Leo was out of commission for basically the rest of 2020. But the real kicker happened in December. Leo was finally well enough to start working again. He went back out on the job – and almost immediately got COVID from one of his coworkers.
Roa-Dugan: That was the most stressful part of the whole year I think, when my family got COVID. We had – I had to use my vacation time –
Roa-Dugan: – which was not fair, because it wasn’t a vacation. It was the worst vacation ever. One month in that house, just taking care of my family.
And then I was kind of threatened about not being able to go back to work.
Mendoza: Yarleny only had so much paid time off. She knew that when that ran out, she could risk losing her job over too many absences. She was eligible for additional leave through the Family Medical Leave Act, or FMLA –
Laine Perfas: – but that process turned out to be a whole new struggle. Actually getting that leave requires certification from a health care provider. But everyone was so busy, dealing with the spike in cases after the holidays. And then of course, Yarleny couldn’t leave her house. So she had to do everything via phone or email.
Mendoza: So the whole time, she was stressing about what would happen if she couldn’t get the FMLA application approved. And, again, at that point, she was the only person in her family making any money.
Roa-Dugan: That just bumped it up a notch. I – I couldn’t believe it.
Laine Perfas: Yarleny did manage to get her leave approved through FMLA. She kept her job, and went back to work as soon as she could.
Mendoza: But after hearing about what she went through we had to ask: Why did it need to be so hard?
Yemisi Jones: What we were seeing is that there’s just a lot of variability. There really isn’t a consistent approach to this.
Laine Perfas: That’s Yemisi Jones. She teaches pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. She’s also part of a startup that works on gender equity in her field.
Jones: And I think it’s sort of luck of the draw. So my institution early on provided, you know, backup child care, worked on flexibility and scheduling. But that just was a function of the culture and the environment that I happen to work in. There are lots of health care workers who don’t have the same protections of leave and vacation or sick time. Those are the kinds of things that I think across the country we could set standards for.
Mendoza: So here’s one of the many things that we loved about talking to Yarleny: Even though she’s been through the wringer this year, she didn’t for a second talk about backing down.
Laine Perfas: Nope, totally the opposite: When we met up with her in Las Vegas, she was upbeat, looking ahead to the summer and beyond, and even thinking about how she could help change things for others like her.
Mendoza: Hi Leya, it’s nice to meet you.
Roa-Dugan: She’s shy at first –
Mendoza: At first! [Laughter]
Laine Perfas: Yarleny’s home is all on one floor, very roomy, with a huge backyard and sunroom that they use for parties. The kids have their own rooms –
Mendoza: – and Leya was very excited to show us hers, which was filled with stuffed animals, a play kitchen, and her very own carpenter set.
Laine Perfas: There was also one room that was sort of part office, part exhibit for Yarleny’s awesomeness.
Mendoza: Had we mentioned? She’s a black belt in taekwondo.
Laine Perfas: How many medals is that? [Laughter]
Roa-Dugan: And that’s when I did a fitness competition two years ago.
Laine Perfas: You were the champion?
Roa-Dugan: I won, yeah.
Laine Perfas: So they gave you a sword?
Roa-Dugan: I was lucky. Yes. A sword and a medal.
Mendoza: Eventually, we made our way to their big dining table – the one they never use, because apparently the four of them preferred to squish themselves into the much smaller table in the kitchen.
Laine Perfas: We had a couple hours to catch up with her before she had to get to work.
Mendoza: We want to hear how you’re doing. We haven’t talked to you in a couple of weeks. How’s it been?
Roa-Dugan: It’s been great. Things are getting better, and that’s my light at the end of the tunnel.
Mendoza: We said early on – Yarleny’s lived through a lot of hard years. So we asked her how 2020 stacked against all the others.
Roa-Dugan: Oh, my goodness, this has no comparison. This really doesn’t. It feels like a lost year. I don’t know how I did it, how I survived it. But it just happened.
Mendoza: Do you feel like you were set back?
Roa-Dugan: No, I don’t think it was a setback. Even though it was not what I wanted. You know, lessons in life are not sometimes the way you want them, but I think I needed to slow down a little bit. And – and see what was important.
And this is something my 14-year-old tells me all the time. He was one of the – of the people that really pushed me to leave my second job. He said that I was working too much and I was going to burn out. And I was feeling it for a while already. I was feeling tired. I was pushing, though, because I like challenges and I don’t like to give up. But just hearing my 14-year-old tell me, “You’re going to burn out, you need to stop.” That made me realize that he … he’s right.
Mendoza: Moving forward, where do you see yourself?
Roa-Dugan: I really like working and advocating for the minorities. People like me, women, immigrants, people of color. That’s where my heart is at. I don’t know exactly where I’m going to go with it. You might see my name one day running for Congress or something. I don’t know.
Laine Perfas: We didn’t want Yarleny to be late for work – her shift at the hospital started at 6:45 pm sharp. So we wrapped up our conversation. And while Yarleny tried to get a few bites of food, Leya proceeded to order Jess around.
Mendoza: Hm, yeah? I’m being summoned.
Laine Perfas: [Chuckles] “I’m being summoned.”
Roa-Dugan: Leya, she’s very bossy. But we like that. We want her to be – to have a strong personality.
Mendoza: Leya tried to get me to do this jump-roll martial arts move on her play mat. She even showed me how to do it. If that’s not the makings of an independent woman, I don’t know what is.
Laine Perfas: Leya was hilarious. So Leya just turned 4. And she always wants her mom to stay home from work, to spend time with her. It’s one of the reasons it’s been so difficult for Yarleny to leave in the evenings.
Roa-Dugan: So last week I called in sick –
Laine Perfas: Oh! Gentle.
Mendoza: That was Sam trying to stop Leya from commandeering our microphone while Yarleny was telling us this really sweet story –
Roa-Dugan: She was so excited. Then she said, “But what did they say?” I said, “Who?” “The ladies.”
Laine Perfas: The ladies!
Roa-Dugan: “The ladies that were going to have babies. What did they say? Are they sad?” Oh, I said, “Well, I told them that I will be there tomorrow.” She’s like, “OK, you stay with me tonight.” [Laughter]
Laine Perfas: During our visit, though, Yarleny had to go in. And Leya was not happy about it.
Roa-Dugan: Tengo que. I have to go take care of them, the ladies that are going to have babies.
Leya: No mommy!
Mendoza: That night, we dropped off Yarleny at work. We made plans to pick her up the next morning, when her shift ended. I remember feeling really tired on the drive back to our Airbnb. And then immediately, I was like, Who am I kidding? I was just going to bed. Yarleny just gave us her whole afternoon, and now she was starting a 12-hour overnight shift. I mean, the woman really is unstoppable. I mean, we didn’t even get into the fact that she’s been working on her bachelor’s degree this whole time.
Laine Perfas: It’s really wild, when she’s not working she stays up all night studying, and she graduated this June! I mean, she truly is unstoppable, and there are so many things that she wants to accomplish. And yet there’s this recognition that it’s too much, she’s being pulled in so many directions. Mom, nurse, student. So can she manage it all in a sustainable way? And you’ve got to wonder, how does society better support super ambitious, driven women like her? So that they’re not just pulling the weight all on their own?
Mendoza: We actually talked to Yarleny a little more about that the next day, in the car when we were driving her home from work.
[Ambient of Yarleny getting into the car]
Mendoza: Good morning.
Mendoza: Hi. You still look super fresh.
Laine Perfas: I know, you’re like, “Did I just work 12 hours?” You’d never know.
Laine Perfas: Well, first we ate. We went to a local Colombian-American restaurant, one of Yarleny’s favorites. We gobbled dulce de leche waffles –
Mendoza: – chorizo omelettes –
Laine Perfas: – and breakfast empanadas.
Mendoza: When our bellies were happy and full, we got down to business.
Laine Perfas: Yesterday, when we were watching Leya completely boss around Jess, we were laughing about it, but then you and Leo made the comment that, “But we want to raise her to be a strong woman. It’s important in this world.” What is your hope for her and her future?
Roa-Dugan: I hope that she’s as successful as she wants to be. I don’t want her to try to accomplish things because that’s what I want for her. This is also what I wish for my son, but I feel, for boys, it’s kind of easier, life in general. And I raised him to be a little feminist. So with Leya, I basically try to teach her to be strong and not let anybody put her down or tell her what to do.
So the young – young girls, they’re so strong right now. They have a different sense of themselves. Maybe more empathetic. It’s like Leya surprised me when she was worried about the women at the hospital, that she thought maybe they were going to be sad because I wasn’t going to work that day. And she’s only 4 years old. So they just think and see the world in a different way. They’re more understanding and accepting of people, and we need that.
Laine Perfas: How do you feel about yourself and your life and your family, as you think about, like, “I did it. I was able to make it all work”?
Roa-Dugan: So when I feel down, I try to reflect on that. Like, “Oh, my gosh, look at all we did. Look at all I did during the pandemic.” I was able to continue with school and almost finish. We were able to accomplish so many things as a family.
We came out of it stronger together. And now we have a better outlook. Sometimes you learn the hard way, and this pandemic was a lesson for a lot of people. And not just personally, but maybe as a society, we figured out a lot of things that we were doing were wrong. And hopefully that’s going to teach us to correct them.
Laine Perfas: Thanks for joining us!
Mendoza: Next time on “Stronger”: We’ll meet Mariza Rocha, who works as a utility porter at the STRAT Hotel and Casino. Her story really shows how important it is to have someone who has your back during a major crisis. For Rocha, her union was that lifeline.
Mariza Rocha: For real, it’s not that I put too much cream on the tacos about the union, but if it wasn’t for them, I would feel alone.
Mendoza: We hope you’ll join us. And if you enjoyed this episode, please rate and review us! You can find all our episodes by searching for “Stronger” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Stitcher. Or visit csmonitor.com/stronger.
Laine Perfas: This episode was reported and produced by me, Samantha Laine Perfas.
Mendoza: And me, Jessica Mendoza.
Laine Perfas: Edited by Clay Collins and Trudy Palmer. Sound design by Morgan Anderson and Noel Flatt. Brought to you by The Christian Science Monitor, copyright 2021.
Leya: Oh. What happened?
Mendoza: The song ended!
Laine Perfas: You might have to ask it to play another song.
Leya: Hm? OK. Alexa, play “Paw Patrol.”
Alexa: Shuffling songs by Paw Patrol on Amazon music. [Music]
Leya: Pawwwww patroooool…