Letters Help Millstone Nurse Feel Connected
“Dear Mommy, I miss everything about you and I want you back in my life,” Hanna Vargas wrote. “I love you forever and ever, and I want you to come back to me. Please come back.”
The heartfelt note didn’t have to travel far. For six weeks, Karen Vargas quarantined herself in the finished basement of her Millstone home while she battled the COVID-19 pandemic as the nurse manager in the emergency department of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in Rahway. Her husband Edgar and her parents lived upstairs, caring for 8-year-old triplets Hanna, Aiden and Joshua.
“It was a hard decision to make,” Vargas said. “You wanted to be those people who are at home on Facebook saying, ‘My God, my kids are driving me crazy.’ But I was focused on what I had to do.”
That meant communicating from afar, and sometimes in writing. Joshua joined the letter-writing with a note that read, “Dear mommy, I want to hug you and I miss you very much! You are really nice because you take me to birthday parties. You are the best mom ever. I cannot live without you.”
Vargas has worked at the hospital for 21 years. She is responsible for a staff of 78. When COVID-19 cases started flooding the emergency room in late March, she worried about exposing her family to the contagion. She also wanted to set a cautious example for her colleagues.
“You don’t know what you’re carrying home,” said Eric Kleinert, director of nursing at Wood Johnson University Hospital in Rahway. “There are many other people (on the emergency department staff) who are moms. Whenever you are in a leadership position, people take their cues from you.”
The basement already had been furnished as an apartment of sorts, with a bathroom and fridge, for Vargas’ adult son and his fiancée. Still, it was hard for a mom to wall herself off from her 8-year-olds. Aiden has cerebral palsy, which made the hand-off of care even more challenging.
“There were tears,” she said.
A school project drove home the separation’s impact.
“The children were assigned a time capsule focused on COVID-19 and one of the questions was, “What are you going to do first when the quarantine is over?” Edgar Vargas said. “Without hesitation, my daughter wrote, ‘I’m going to give my mother a hug and a kiss.’ It became very real how much Hanna missed her mother. That was a powerful moment.”