This article was originally published in the Glendale News-Press on Aug. 14
A sewing machine and a pair of scissors, along with some key leadership skills, helped Susan Sung Hee Lee navigate some of the worst days of the coronavirus pandemic.
The relief charge nurse at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital had a team to lead when the first wave of the pandemic came crashing down — in the intensive care unit, no less. She continued through the similarly large second surge, then through the nearly catastrophic third outbreak and now faces a fourth rise in COVID-19 caseloads as the school year dawns.
Early on was chaotic, with a barrage of new information and policy changes from both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the hospital’s own administration.
Through it all, and whatever the future might bring, the most important thing to Lee is that she’s not alone.
“We were constantly doing what we had to do to protect ourselves, but first and foremost it was really scary,” she recalled in an interview this week. “The thing I stressed the most among my colleagues was, ‘Let’s all contribute our share.’ A lot of times in a hospital, the stronger nurses take the breadth of the work because we can, I guess. But what we tried to focus on was, if everyone gave their little bit, we would have less of a burnout and less of us falling apart.”
For her leadership at USC-VHH, where she has worked for 11 years, Lee was among more than a dozen residents of the 28th Congressional District named as women of the year by Congressman Adam Schiff. Among researchers and volunteers, Lee joins a large number of health-care workers who distinguished themselves through the worldwide crisis.
“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have witnessed the unimaginable burden shouldered by women as essential and frontline workers, health care personnel, caregivers, scientists and teachers,” Schiff, a Burbank Democrat, said in a statement. “I am proud to recognize these heroic individuals and their contributions, sacrifices and selfless service as recipients of the 2021 Women of the Year award.”
It was an accolade that still surprises Lee. The memory of 2020 remained fresh in her mind, judging from how immediately she recalled the dire straits the community hospital faced. The medical system had to solicit permission from the state to have nurses take on three patients at a time — regulation typically permits two at most. The ICU was frequently so full that it had to turn away non-critical patients.
“Unless they were literally crashing, it was hard for us to bring them to the ICU,” Lee said. “On the other floor” — where nurses handled telemetry or heart monitoring — “they stepped up and were taking care of otherwise ICU patients. Even the medical surgical units, they were taking on a lot of patients.
“I think we all have some degree of PTSD from this,” she added, “and we’re starting to see this again. We’re starting to see some COVID patients who are coming in pretty sick, so I just hope that the fall is OK.”
As frontline health-care workers, nurses likely ran some of the highest risk of COVID-19 exposure. As the pandemic raged, it proved to be just about the only reason a nurse would take time off work, Lee observed. The stakes were that high.
“There was a very low incidence of sick calls. I think everyone did contribute and we didn’t really call out sick unless we had COVID — a lot of our nurses got sick with COVID — and I think everyone stepped up,” she said. “Every day was kind of like, trudging through and getting through the day, and then we had to go home and deal with our lives at home, too.”
Lee fortuitously did not catch the virus and did not bring it home to La Crescenta to her two young children or husband. At home, however, she did catch a little bit of the humanitarian bug, which she brought to work.
Unearthing a sewing machine she received as a wedding gift, Lee stitched together her own scrub cap — normally used by surgeons when performing a surgery — and began making them for her team and other colleagues. They became desired as a way of preventing coronavirus particles from potentially getting in someone’s hair, and also as an expressive accoutrement — one nurse pinned a princess crown on hers, others had theirs knit from Nintendo-themed cloth.
Dusting off her hair shears and buzzers, Lee also took on haircutting duties for her colleagues. After observing the hair situations develop when barbershops and salons were closed, she started asking who needed a cut.
“I give a pretty good haircut,” Lee said with pride. “I’ve been cutting my husband’s hair for 10-12 years, and it saves a lot of money. I was really involved at our local church for many, many years, and we would go on these mission trips — evangelical, spreading-the-word type trips. I got pretty good with a buzzer and gave a lot of haircuts to a lot of the kids — and adults — on those trips.”
Her instinct to use personal appearance as a morale boost for her colleagues stems from her similar experience with long-term patients, Lee explained.
“I think I pride myself for doing that with my patients,” she said. “I like to braid a lot of the women patients’ hair, because it gets tangled and matted if they’re there for a long time. A lot of our male patients, they shave every day, so if they get scraggly like that, they don’t feel good and don’t have the motivation to get better, so I like to take time and do that.”
Lee grew up in La Crescenta, where her Korean parents had immigrated to after meeting in college in Germany. She went through Monte Vista Elementary School, Rosemont Middle School and Crescenta Valley High School before embarking to UC Irvine, where she earned a degree in Asian American studies.
“It was American history from other cultures’ perspectives,” she explained. “It was really interesting, especially living here in a multicultural area. I had a lot of growth personally, but I don’t think it put me on track for anything career wise. It was more personal.”
Her mother being a nurse, Lee enrolled at Glendale Community College and earned her associate’s degree in nursing. She started at USC-VHH afterward and eventually earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing from Azusa Pacific University.
Her education these past 17 months has been one of camaraderie.
“I just felt like the collaboration between our team was extremely strong,” Lee said. “Even the nurses who kind of ‘slack off’ on the normal, they would jump in and we’d tackle all of our tasks together, so it was amazing to see the team effort and to see everybody putting a bit more into their share.”