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Michelle Jokisch Polo takes a look at trailblazing Latinos in the Capital Region. Listen to 90.5 and 105.1 during Morning Edition and All Things Considered Sept. 15-Oct. 15.

Nurse who treated hospital's first COVID patient reflects on working through the pandemic

Dora Hoppes is a nurse. She is wearing green scrubs and standing in front of a hospital room in the COVID-19 unit at Sparrow Hospital.
Michelle Jokisch Polo
Dora Hoppes stands in front of a hospital room in the COVID-19 unit at Sparrow Hospital.

For Hispanic Heritage Month, WKAR is taking a closer look at trailblazing Latinos in our region. 

Last in our series we meet Dora Hoppes, a Michigan nurse working in a COVID-19 unit. She took care of the first hospitalized coronavirus patient at Lansing's Sparrow Hospital.

I meet Dora Hoppes near the end of her twelve hour shift. She works in the COVID unit at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing.

“We're at Sparrow hospital, Seven West. Great floor, we have 30 beds," she said. "So, it's a lot of COVID. We're not completely full, but we like to keep it open so that whoever becomes negative, we'll ship them out and bring another COVID [patient] in.”

She’s wearing a gown over her scrubs, gloves and clear glasses to shield her face, along with a mask.

Every time she visits a new patient, she has to put on a whole new set of protective gear to keep germs from spreading.


“So, it protects me, covered all the way around up to my shoulders, and then we wear gloves," Hoppes explained. "When I get done in there, I throw it in the trash in the room and come out.”

Hoppes says becoming a nurse was a calling. After spending most of her adult life working in the medical field, she realized in her late thirties she wanted to become a nurse.

“My father-in-law came down with [multiple sclerosis]. So, I took care of him for a while and held up my nursing education. And then it ended up being eight years," she said. "And after taking care of him and his wife, I decided 'okay, this is really what I wanted to do.'”

A closed wooden hospital door with a sign that says: "STOP MUST WEAR - gown, N95 or PAPR, face shield, gloves. Door must be closed. Enhanced Droplets Precautions".
Michelle Jokisch Polo
Outside of a patient room in the COVID-19 unit at Sparrow Hospital

When the first person suffering a severe case of COVID-19 in Lansing came to Sparrow for care in the spring of 2020, Hoppes was one of the nurses in charge. She said she felt like she had little control over what exactly her team could do to make this patient feel better.

“We didn't know, you know, what do we do? So, I'm making calls to infection control, you know, how do I protect myself? They were learning it also," Hoppes said. "So, they said 'right now we're going to have you gown up completely like you're going into a [tuberculosis] room.' So, that's what we did. Luckily, it was the right thing to do.”

That patient was discharged nearly two months later, which Hoppes counts as a victory. But she said many of her patients have died from the disease and that has made it very hard for her to come into work shift after shift.

Hoppes is no longer a stranger to the way the coronavirus can rampage through a human body.

Four monitors show the oxygen and heart rate levels of all the patients hospitalized in the COVID-19 unit at Sparrow Hospital.
Michelle Jokisch Polo
These monitors show the oxygen and heart rate levels of patients hospitalized in the COVID-19 unit at Sparrow Hospital.

“COVID doesn't really change. Patients have trouble breathing, they can't breathe, we set them up to get intubated. They come back when they're doing better, or they pass away," Hoppes said. "It's just a lot."

Last December, one day before she was scheduled to receive her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, Hoppes said she started to feel dizzy during her shift.

“I went and sat down and my manager came up, says 'are you okay?,'" Hoppes explained.

Hoppes told her manager she wasn't sure. Her manager checked her blood oxygen levels.

“She says 'you're really low, so I'm gonna have to send you over to the clinic.' And she did, and I tested positive," Hoppes adds.

While Hoppes wasn’t sick enough to be hospitalized, she had a really hard time with the symptoms she experienced from COVID-19.

“I was scared. Because I'm older. I'm 61. And I had not been vaccinated, of course. And I have asthma. And I knew from working with COVID patients that type 2 diabetes, asthma, COPD, factored with COVID makes it a little difficult for recovery for that person," she said.

She had to take off work for nearly three months to recover. Hoppes came back to work on February 13.

Most of the patients Hoppes has cared for recently haven’t received a COVID-19 shot. None of the four patients she was caring for the day I’m talking to her had theirs. But she said all of them have told her they regret not having received the vaccine.

In less than two weeks, Hoppes will be clocking out as a nurse for the very last time. Holding back tears she said working in a COVID unit during the last year and a half has been exhausting.

"I feel like it's time for me to retire [and] enjoy the things I like to do a little better. It's a lot more work than I've ever done. You know, I've been here since 1998, and I've seen a lot of changes happening with nursing. This is hard. COVID is hard."

While Hoppes believes the pandemic is far from over, she says two of the best things people can do to lessen the burden on healthcare workers like her is to get vaccinated and to continue to mask up.

As WKAR's Bilingual Latinx Stories Reporter, Michelle reports in both English and Spanish on stories affecting Michigan's Latinx community.
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