File Photo. Kit Karzen

As a frontline healthcare worker, Jean Abac is committed to overcoming any fear and doing her part in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. She has been working seven days a week as a nurse at three area hospitals.

Supporting patients’ needs is especially meaningful for her because she knows that there is now a nursing shortage and those on the job can be concerned — even reluctant — about providing care, particularly at the bedside, to those diagnosed with coronavirus.

“Right now is the time to help,” says Jean, who splits her work hours among the UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica, Olympia Medical Center and West Hills Hospital. “Nurses have a huge responsibility. We signed up to be in this position. This is our job and that holds a lot of importance. You take an oath to be a part of a greater good.”

Jean, 29, a resident of the Palms area of Los Angeles, emigrated from the Philippines as a teen and benefited from being selected as a United Health Foundation Diverse Scholar. The program, an initiative to promote diversity in the health care industry that was created and is funded by the United Health Foundation, will help pay for her continuing education to become a nurse practitioner.

The nursing profession is a family affair. Her fiancé, Spencer, is also a nurse — and he is working six days a week. They keep each other motivated. “We’re just trying to do our best to make the most of what’s currently happening,” says Jean, whose biological father is also a nurse in a nursing home. Her mother previously worked overnight shifts as an in-home caregiver.  

Over the past nine years that Jean has been a nurse, she has learned to become a more effective health care provider by making, what she calls, “cultural connections.” She strives to be empathetic with all the patients she serves. She’s quick to acknowledge their ethnic or racial backgrounds (such as conversing in Tagalog with fellow Filipinos) and create a general sense of familiarity and acceptance. She has also learned a handful of key words in Spanish that she says work like “magic” in making a difference with Latinos and helping them cope with issues of vulnerability.

“In my daily interactions with my patients, I try to really get to know them on a personal level, and especially learn what makes them laugh,” she says. “When in the hospital, there’s just way too many things that scare people, especially the big unknowns like waiting for their diagnosis or what will be the prognosis once they start their treatments.”

The trauma that comes with a sickness and diagnosis is one that Jean knows firsthand. During nursing school, she was treated for a serious condition that could have led to cervical cancer. And now, as the deadly COVID-19 pandemic continues, there is the constant threat of exposure.

“There are a lot of worries among me and my co-workers. Some get sick and then you worry if you will get sick and that you’ll bring it home to your loved ones,” she says, referring to COVID-19. “But we all signed up to help every patient with every kind of disease.”

Jean’s award as a Diverse Scholar will help her continue to develop and grow in her career. She wants to be a role model for younger generations and help recruit others into nursing. She’s trying to emulate the professional mentors who played such a big role for her when she first became a nurse.

“It’s very humbling,” she says. “I feel such great purpose knowing that I was part of allowing patients to receive a second, third or however many chances they’ve been granted again in life. We’re only here for a short time — and knowing that you were part of  lengthening somebody’s life a little longer so that they can share more laughs, loves and memories with other people is an unexplainable feeling.”