Thrive by IU Health

June 02, 2021

Veteran nurse: ‘I can’t tell you how hard it is to see that lonely patient in bed’

Veteran nurse: ‘I can’t tell you how hard it is to see that lonely patient in bed’

For more than two decades she’s sat at the bedside of her patients. Now, IU Health Nurse Monica Hammerly’s focus is on those compromised by COVID-19.

By IU Health Senior Journalist T.J. Banes, tfender1@iuhealth.org

Before health care professionals were introduced to a deadly virus, Monica Hammerly often told her coworkers that she would be one of the “oldest resource nurses alive.”

She began working at IU Health 22 years ago this month with a focus on ICU. Also this month marks her 32nd anniversary to her husband, Harold Hammerly. When their son, Christian, was born 20 years ago, Hammerly made a move to the nursing resource pool where she works at five different IU Health hospitals.

For now, she is assigned to work with patients fighting the coronavirus.

“I fell in love with the idea of going to different units and working with a diverse patient population. I love the challenges, and the learning curve has been tremendous. In order to succeed as a resource nurse you have to have a positive attitude that you can do just about anything during that shift,” said Hammerly, 59.

And never before has her career been more taxing than it is now.

“The most challenging part of working with COVID patients to me is the emotional part,” said Hammerly. “There is always the physical part – the running around with all the tasks that are involved caring for our complex COVID patients. These patients are here for days and weeks. I can do anything for 12 hours,” said Hammerly.

But the emotional part of her job takes it’s toll long after her shift ends.

“I can’t tell you how hard it is to see that lonely patient in a bed,” she says. As she talks she dabs at her tears and apologizes for her emotions. “Our goal is have at least one person with them so they don’t die alone.” Shift after shift she faces the sadness. She faces family members remotely offering their good-byes. She faces fear alongside her patients.

It stays with her.

“We had a family that had four deaths related to COVID in the same family and they couldn’t be there for any of them. How do you reconcile with that?” she asks.

Hammerly’s peace comes from her faith, family, and friends, and the team she works with. “Like a family, we support each other the best we can,” she says.

Born in Argentina to Benjamin and Angela Nikolaus, she is the eldest of two daughters. Her younger sister, Sonia Nikolaus, is also a Critical Care nurse in California, facing some of the same challenges. The sisters come from a long line of hospital caregivers – including aunts and great aunts who are nurses and their uncle who was a surgeon.

As a child, her father, who headed up a hospital maintenance team, often took her with him to work.

“It was a small hospital and I used to go play and spend time with the nurses. I was their mascot, said Hammerly. Later as a teen she thought about a career in nursing but wasn’t sure she had the stomach for it. Turns out she underestimated herself.

At the age of 17, her family moved to Arizona and her uncle, Humberto Gonzalez, recruited her to help in the office of his surgery practice. After a time, he began introducing her to the aspects of patient care and she was hooked.

She attended Pima Community College in Tucson, Az. and received her BSN through UINDY. It was her husband’s job, a mechanic with United Airlines that brought them to Indianapolis. In a “small world” story she and her husband were born in the same town and the same hospital in Argentina but they never met until he came to visit a mutual friend of both their parents who was Hammerly’s church pastor in Tucson. The romance took off from there.

Hammerly family photo

“I believe everything happens for a reason,” said Hammerly. To help support other IU Health resource nurses, Hammerly started a Facebook page called, “Pool Party.” The nurses often post questions and share their struggles – especially during the pandemic. The cover photo for the closed group is a quote by Edwin C. Hofert from The Calling: “Way back before you were born, God knew there was a need. So he picked your fertile heart and planted a caring seed. Then he waited and watched knowing before too long the desire in you to help others would continue to grow strong.”

Hammerly said the quote is inspiration and she hopes it helps her fellow nurses plow through difficult times.

“When a nurse expresses being exhausted and tired of death, we are there to help offer our support. We’re all feeling the strain,” said Hammerly. And when she is at the bedside of a patient who expresses similar fear and sadness, she is inclined to hold a hand and say a prayer. “I often cry,” she said. “I simply say, ‘I’m a weeper for my patients.’” She recently got a response from one of her patients: “Those will be the best tears you shed.”

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Critical Care

Critical care (also called intensive care) is for patients who need life support, around-the-clock care and other advanced care during serious illness or traumatic injury.