TROUBLE BREATHING A SIGH OF RELIEF
As a 21-year-veteran nurse with UC Davis Medical Center, Virpal Donley believes strongly in the care she and other staff provide. In fact, she often tells people:
“When you’re at your most vulnerable, do not trust your care or your loved ones’ care to anybody else but UC Davis Health. We provide better care than anyone else. Bar none.”
A very bad flu year
That’s not exaggeration or excessive allegiance. It’s simply this pediatric ICU nurse manager’s lived experience. In fact, in the hands of another hospital, she had a near-death experience.
It was 2017, a really bad flu season. As she recalls, “Healthy people in their 20s and 30s were dying. It’s difficult to remember other pandemics but COVID-19, but they happen.”
On New Year’s Day, Virpal got very sick. In the middle of the night, out of convenience and “because as a nurse I’d always thought I could advocate for myself,” she drove herself to the emergency department closest to her home — and not UC Davis Health. They tested her, said it was just the flu and told her to go home.
A very bad decision
Based on her vital signs, Virpal thought she needed to stay, but they persuaded her that the emergency department was full of other patients who needed their attention more. Reluctantly she agreed. Twelve hours later, she woke up on her bathroom floor, having passed out. She crawled to the side of the bed and roused her husband. He called an ambulance.
Because she’d just been discharged, she was transported to the same hospital emergency department “where they begrudgingly admitted me.” She remembers telling her husband, “This is serious. I’m really, really sick.” After that, she doesn’t remember much. She became hypoxic, her respiration very distressed, a state in which one becomes agitated and even delirious.
At this point, unable to “process or think clearly,” Virpal lost the ability to advocate for herself. Her lungs filled with fluid, and she began spitting up frothy pink secretions. Thankfully, her husband called one of Virpal’s colleagues, explained the situation, and that nurse contacted a UC Davis Health attending physician.
“If it weren’t for the intervention of my UC Davis Health colleague, I would be dead. Hands down.”
“They’re going to kill her”
The text read: “You have to get over there. They’re going to kill her.”
When the physician arrived, she found Virpal lying in near respiratory failure and septic shock. The staff was “passive and unengaged.” She immediately instructed them to intubate Virpal so she could get oxygen and start a line for antibiotics to clean her lungs. When Virpal was more stable, the doctor demanded they transfer her to UC Davis Medical Center. They did.
There, Virpal’s care was “aggressive and proactive.” For a week she had a breathing tube. After a few more days of recovery, she went home to rest.
She lived — and learned two valuable lessons
In 10 days, Virpal lost 15 pounds. Her body was wrecked. She wouldn’t go back to work until March.
The experience made Virpal grateful — as well as an even better nurse.
“I think I underappreciated delirium in our patients,” she explains. Since then, she frequently tells providers she works with about her experience, reminding them to always be every patient’s foremost advocate because most don’t have the expertise to do it for themselves. Even she, with plenty of expertise, had lost that ability when she became gravely ill.
She learned something else, too. For years, Virpal had made sure that her husband and children had UC Davis Health-affiliated physicians. Because she believed she could always advocate for herself, she had used a non-UC Davis Health primary care physician who’s a friend.
“As soon as open enrollment came around that year, I changed that in a hot second,” she explains. “Because if it weren’t for the intervention of my UC Davis Health colleague, I would be dead. Hands down.”