Oscar Sánchez never imagined when he first arrived in Boston from his native Dominican Republic in 2004 as an international student to learn English that he would end up years later in one of the country's largest and most prestigious hospitals — on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.
Sánchez, 37, has been a critical care nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston since last year, having come to the facility with several years of experience under his belt. As with so many other health care professionals nationwide, nothing prepared him to confront the COVID-19 pandemic, despite his experience, Sánchez said.
"It's been a challenge. We were dealing with something we didn't know. The virus would change, it would change how it was transmitted, and we'd change how we were going to take care of patients," Sánchez said, "and how we are were going take care of ourselves."
At the height of the pandemic in late spring and early summer, Massachusetts mirrored many other states with high-density populations and troubling surges of cases. As in many communities of color nationwide, the Latino population in Massachusetts has had a disproportionate number of cases compared to non-Hispanic whites.
Latinos are 67 percent of the population in the Boston suburb of Chelsea — the city with the highest number of total cases per capita in the state. While the overall number of cases statewide has gone down, COVID-19 continues to hit communities of color hard. The high number of cases among Latinos is something that is very present for Sánchez.
"Being Hispanic and seeing Hispanic patients at the hospital, that was a wake-up call on many levels. I would be like 'that could be me; that could be my family,'" he said. "In some cases, we were taking care of people where the whole family was in the hospital, and when you see that, it hits close to home."
Sánchez considers being bilingual to be especially helpful. "Being able to speak with the families in their language has been a relief to them. Sometimes they would save their questions and wait until I came on [his shift] to ask me," he said. "Some knew their relative couldn't speak any other language besides Spanish, and I'm there to help them."
One of the precautions Sánchez, working day after day with coronavirus patients, took early on was to move out of his house and stay in a hotel close to the hospital, which he did for more than a month. "I had been changing clothes at the hospital, using different shoes at home, but as I saw the cases go up, I felt I needed to do something else," he said.
The Critical Care Nurses Association partnered with the Hilton Hotels chain and American Express to sponsor free hotel rooms for essential workers like Sánchez. Sánchez said that while he was away, it was particularly hard on his children, ages 10, 5 and 1½.
"They were expecting to see me every day and come close. They would ask me where I was and what was I doing and why," Sánchez said. "I tried to do my best to explain at least to the two oldest ones what I was doing so that they could get a good idea."
He and his family would do "drive by" greetings, and Sánchez said the whole experience at the height of the pandemic felt almost surreal.
"It felt like every day you were going to war. It was like if you were in the Army. That's how we felt. You do this not just for the paycheck, but also with the desire to help others," he said, "but you know that you are also risking your life by doing so."
Sánchez has a bachelor's degree in nursing from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, as well as a bachelor's degree in health science from Merrimack College.
Sánchez stressed that he and his colleagues have been taking precautions to stay healthy, and he said he wants the public to understand that the coronavirus is a real health issue and to make the necessary measures to tamp it down.
"It really bothers me when I see people wear their mask as a chin guard," he said, referring to people whose masks don't cover both their noses and their mouths.
"I have to wear a mask when I work in the hospital, 12 hours a day," he said. "You can wear a mask for a couple of hours going into a store. People want to exercise their rights as much as they can, and they think wearing a mask is an option. The general public should wear a mask. I'd like to see more of a mandate on a national level to wear a mask."
Sánchez said that at one point he questioned whether he could continue to do his job.
"When I started seeing the numbers go up and I started seeing a lot of Hispanics affected and a lot of people were dying, I had my doubts. Maybe this wasn't the right time. Maybe I should take a leave of absence or something," he said.
He called his mother in the Dominican Republic, and she quoted him the biblical verse from Luke about "putting the hand to the plow," and about not looking back.
"She was basically telling me this is my job and I have to do it, to stick to it and not give up," Sánchez said.
That, he said, is what keeps him going every day.