Kirsten Palmquist, an emergency room nurse and clinical education coordinator at Dominican Hospital.
Dominican Hospital nurse Kirsten Palmquist
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)
Pandemic Life

‘It’s changed who I am’: The life of a Santa Cruz County nurse in the pandemic

The pandemic has taken a toll on Dominican Hospital ER nurse Kirsten Palmquist and her family. Long days. Endless streams of patients. Surges on top of surges. But she is steadfast in her commitment to her calling.

After a long career in nursing, Kirsten Palmquist still remembers the moment she found her calling.

She was in high school, probably a sophomore, when she and her mom saw a car swerving on the road. The car pulled off, and Palmquist’s mom, a nurse, stopped so the two could get out and help.

It was an older couple. The wife was in the passenger seat sobbing. When they opened the driver’s side door, her husband kind of fell out the side. The details are tough to remember now, but Palmquist thinks he was having a stroke.

People in the Pandemic

This series profiling the workers and patients who are fighting their way through COVID-19 is among eight Lookout initiatives documenting all aspects of the pandemic. For more, go to our COVID 2021 section, sign up for COVID Text Alerts and our COVID PM newsletter here, and leave feedback and ask questions at the end of this story.

“I just remember that when somebody is sick or when there’s (an) emergency my brain became calm,” Palmquist, 45, said in a recent interview with Lookout. “Like my whole body, I just felt it kind of relax and think clearly.”

She knew she was meant to be in other people’s lives during times of crisis. And that’s what she has done for the past 24 years, spending the better part of the last two decades at Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz where she is an emergency room nurse and clinical education coordinator.

Right now, it’s as hard as ever.

The coronavirus has pushed those fighting the virus on the frontlines to the brink. Long days. Endless streams of patients. Surges on top of surges. A daily battle with an invisible enemy.

Presented by Santa Cruz County Bank

The Volunteer Center of Santa Cruz County re-envisioned its programs and initiatives to meet the needs and challenges of...

It has taken a toll on Palmquist and her family, too. Her children, Palmquist said, worry about her when she goes to work in the emergency room. They know the challenges of being an ER nurse, even when there isn’t a pandemic.

“It’s very emotionally draining, I guess, and that’s not something that we can measure,” Palmquist said. “And it’s a difficult thing for the community to understand.”

Nursing roots run deep

The profession runs deep in her family. Not only is her mom a nurse, but so is her husband. Four out of five siblings are in health care. Her daughter is starting nursing school in the fall. Her son is thinking about it.

“It’s just service has become really rooted in our family and in our home,” Palmquist said.

Presented by Santa Cruz County Bank

The Volunteer Center of Santa Cruz County re-envisioned its programs and initiatives to meet the needs and challenges of...

Palmquist has cared for countless COVID-19 patients. She knows how scared they are, how out of control they must feel, having to grapple not only with a potentially deadly disease, but facing it without their family or support system by their side.

“I have had those interactions where they know that they’re getting worse and they are afraid,” Palmquist said. “And you want to promise them that everything’s going to get better, but you’re not sure if it is. And you don’t want to give people a false hope, so all you can do is really do your very best in a short amount of time to establish trust with that person that you’re going to do everything you can to help them get better and get back to their family.”

I have had those interactions where they know that they’re getting worse and they are afraid. And you want to promise them that everything’s going to get better, but you’re not sure if it is.

— Nurse Kirsten Palmquest

But with each passing month, it’s becoming harder to compartmentalize and carry on the next day. At times, Palmquist isn’t sleeping well. Or she’s tired after having slept. It’s becoming almost impossible to leave work at work.

She recognizes the toll the pandemic has taken on her colleagues, too, especially as cases have sky-rocketed in Santa Cruz County the past few weeks. “Like you can see physically when they clock in, bracing themselves for what today might look like,” Palmquist said.

And yet, like Palmquist, they carry on. She sees them putting their patients first, even when they’re tired or hungry. She notices them coming in on their days off, being willing to stay longer or come in early. “That’s kind of a privilege to be able to have a job where you see that kind of commitment on a daily basis,” Palmquist said.

Kirsten Palmquist, an emergency room nurse and clinical education coordinator at Dominican Hospital.
Kirsten Palmquist, an emergency room nurse and clinical education coordinator at Dominican Hospital, said the pandemic has taken a toll on frontline healthcare workers.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Glimpses of hope

To be sure, there have been glimpses of hope, too, especially with the arrival of a vaccine.

“It was just a palpable feeling in the room,” when vaccines arrived at Dominican, she recalled. “And there were people just crying with relief, crying with joy, feeling like they could go home safely to their family again. . . . It was one of the first times where I felt like I could take a real deep breath.”

For Palmquist, her profession, her calling, is part of who she is. Pandemic or not, after 24 years, she said she would still sign up for it tomorrow. But to her, it’s not just about the nurses and doctors treating patients. From housekeepers to lab employees, all pieces of the puzzle are needed to make the hospital work.

Presented by Cabrillo College

The show must go on: the performing arts have been among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Cabrillo’s Dance,...

“There are people here that show up at the start of my day that smile and they’re ready to work and serve in the same way that we are,” Palmquist said. “And I think that, you know, they don’t quite get the same recognition or thanks and there’s no way we could do our jobs, if they weren’t there doing their job.”

But while Palmquist is steadfast in her commitment to her calling, she also knows that she and her colleagues will have to deal with emotional scars that will long outlive the pandemic.

Once they have time to slow down, Palmquist said, she and other frontline workers will have some of their own healing and coping to do.

“This is something that we’re gonna be carrying with us for the rest of our lives in our profession,” Palmquist said. “The things that we’ve done during this, the things that we’ve experienced during this pandemic. It’s changed who we are as nurses. It’s changed who I am as a nurse.”