Longtime Jackson Memorial ICU nurse dies after novel coronavirus infection

A longtime nurse at Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital died this week due to complications from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

The nurse worked in the hospital’s intensive care unit.

“Our Jackson Health System family is mourning the death of longtime Jackson nurse Araceli Buendia Ilagan, who recently died from complications of COVID-19,” the hospital said in a prepared statement. “Araceli dedicated nearly 33 years of her life treating some of our most critically ill patients.”

Jackson Health said Ilagan, 63, also mentored and trained other nurses, and was a champion for the profession. She had worked for Jackson Health, Miami-Dade’s public hospital system, since the 1980s.

Hospital officials said Ilagan last worked a shift at Jackson Memorial’s ICU on Tuesday, but they do not yet know when she became ill or how many patients and co-workers she may have been in contact with at work.

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Ilagan’s death underscores the risks doctors and nurses face as more patients present to hospitals with symptoms of COVID-19 while protective gear runs low and testing for the disease remains scarce and slow to produce results.

“As we battle this global public health crisis, caregivers throughout the world are bravely serving on the front lines, often putting their patients’ lives before theirs,” the hospital system said. “These medical professionals — people like Araceli — are the true heroes, and we salute them all.”

Martha Baker, president of the labor union that represents 5,000 doctors and nurses at Jackson Health, said she had worked alongside Ilagan at Jackson Memorial in the 1980s.

“She was an ICU nurse,” Baker said, “and she was a wonderful person and a great caregiver.”

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Ilagan, who lived in Pembroke Pines, was licensed as a registered nurse in Florida in 1982 and then as an advanced practice registered nurse in 1991, records show.

She is the second South Florida healthcare worker to die of complications from COVID-19, and the second Jackson Health nurse to test positive for the disease in March.

Herine Baron, an ER nurse at Jackson North Medical Center in North Miami Beach, tested positive for COVID-19 and has been documenting her experience under quarantine on YouTube.

On Wednesday, a Margate doctor died from complications of COVID-19. Alex Hsu, 67, had been an active staff member of Northwest Medical center from 1995 to 2017.

As of Saturday morning, the Florida Department of Health reported more than 3,700 total cases of COVID-19 in the state, including 526 people who are hospitalized statewide. Health officials have reported 981 cases in Miami-Dade, and 88 people hospitalized.

Jackson Health said Friday there were 29 people with COVID-19 hospitalized at one of the healthcare system’s three inpatient facilities in Miami, North Miami Beach and Palmetto Bay.

Doctors and nurses who work with patients every day in hospital emergency rooms and elsewhere are facing great risk as the coronavirus pandemic grows and there’s a national shortage of protective gear, such as respirator masks, gowns, face shields and gloves, Baker said.

Florida’s health department has reported 981 cases of COVID-19 in Miami-Dade, more than any other county, and the agency’s disease surveillance data reflect a recent spike in the daily rate of emergency room visits in Miami-Dade that mention shortness of breath.

Baker said Jackson Health administrators have assured her there is enough protective gear for nurses and doctors who care for patients, even if those supplies are now kept under lock and key. Among the most tightly guarded protective gear are N95 respirator masks, which protect workers in situations when the virus can become airborne, such as intubating patients for surgery.

“People are getting the PPE [personal protective equipment],” she said. “N95s are being handed out as appropriate. The change is you can’t just go to the supply ... and pull out an N95. It’s gotta be handed to you at the appropriate time.”

She said the greatest challenge for doctors and nurses is the lack of broad and rapid testing that would allow healthcare workers to identify and isolate patients who test positive. Without the certainty of testing, healthcare workers must treat all patients with a fever, cough or shortness of breath as though they were positive — using more protective gear and draining supplies.

“We should have everybody tested that we can but obviously we don’t have that capacity right now,” Baker said.

She said Jackson Health has started to process more tests at its own lab, and that some can be turned around in six to eight hours.

Baker declined to address morale among Jackson Health workers but said that doctors and nurses are still coming in to work despite the daily risks of exposure to the highly contagious virus.

“Every single caregiver comes to work knowing they’re at risk everyday but they put the lives of the community and the patients they take care of in front of their own,” she said.

Ben Conarck is a reporter covering healthcare at the Miami Herald, which he joined in August 2019. He was previously an investigative reporter covering criminal justice at The Florida Times-Union. In 2018, he and reporter Topher Sanders received Columbia University’s Paul Tobenkin award for outstanding reporting on race and the University of Colorado’s Al Nakkula award for outstanding police reporting for their multi-part investigation “Walking While Black.” Conarck has also extensively covered the Florida prison system.
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