Pharr native Karina Elizondo is an emergency room registered nurse at UK-Chandler Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky and is featured in the documentary, “In Case of Emergency.” (Courtesy photo)

BY JULISA NEVAREZ

San Juan native Karina Elizondo’s pursuit to become a nurse has taken her across the country.

The Pharr-San Juan-Alamo High School alumnus attended nursing school at Galveston, launched her career in Houston and later moved to Kentucky. What she didn’t know was that she would also end up being featured in a documentary film honoring emergency room medical workers like herself.

Elizondo, 38, has been an ER registered nurse at UK-Chandler Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky for six years now, and is featured in “In Case of Emergency,” a documentary released on Oct. 14.

The film reveals the high-stress settings those in the frontlines of healthcare work in, and though Elizondo says she worries about her own safety as COVID-19 continues to spread across the globe, she can’t imagine doing anything else.

“I love what I do. I go to work because it’s not just a job,” Elizondo said, who is a PSJA High School graduate of 2000. “I love my job. I love the people I work with. Even though times are really tough right now, I still love what I do even as chaotic as it gets.”

SETTING A CLEAR PATH

Before starting her nursing career, Elizondo was a tutor at Premier High School in Pharr. After her first year there, she became a teacher for sixth to 12th grade students at Alamo Middle School and Manvel High School, which is located southeast of Houston.

Elizondo soon began her master’s degree at the University of Texas-Pan American, now UTRGV, and met the man who would become her husband. They moved together to Houston so that he could attend medical school, which motivated Elizondo to look into nursing programs.

“I’d just tell myself that, ‘If this is something that I want, why not do it,’” Elizondo said, who attended Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches and graduated in 2004 with a biology degree. “I’m naturally a caregiver, even as a teacher with my students. So, when I looked into nursing, that’s what a nurse does. You naturally care and you naturally provide for people and that’s what drew me to nursing.”

She went to nursing school at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston taking a one-year fast track program starting January 2012 and finished in December that year. From there, Elizondo began her nursing career at LBJ Hospital in Houston, but later followed her husband, now ex-husband, to the University of Kentucky for his residency and began her work at UK-Chandler Hospital in 2014.

Despite the divorce and most of her family living in Texas, Elizondo decided to stay in Kentucky as a night shift charge nurse.

“My job definitely is my second family away from home. It has helped me through some of the hardest, difficult times of my life,” Elizondo said. “My coworkers are my friends. They’re my second family. I think I could say my favorite thing about my job right now is definitely the teamwork that we have — the bond that we have which keeps me here.”

Elizondo’s love of nursing and passion for helping others has given her the motivation to continue her profession as a caregiver in spite of the pandemic that has affected billions of lives across the world.

Pharr native Karina Elizondo is an emergency room registered nurse at UK-Chandler Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky and is featured in the documentary, “In Case of Emergency.” (Courtesy photo)

Due to the outbreak, Elizondo began her new daily routine at UK-Chandler Hospital, working in the ER unit where before every shift she has to fill out a survey, answering screening questions about COVID-19.

Taking on the night-shift at the hospital, she has to put on scrubs, closed-toed-shoes, gloves, goggles, an N95 face mask and a surgical mask every time she works with a patient, creating a vast change in her routine.

Part of her nights consist of answering questions for nurses and doctors and taking report calls from other hospitals that are sending their patients to hers. And because of the pandemic, in addition to making rounds with staff throughout the night, she also has to keep track of personal protective equipment in stock.

“I’m running around doing things and so if you put all those layers on, it’s really hot and you’re drenched in sweat when you take it off at the end of your shift,” Elizondo said.

Caring for others comes as a second nature to her, but like millions of other frontline workers, Elizondo is constantly worrying for her own safety and that of her loved ones.

Her mother is immunocompromised, making her more vulnerable to the disease. The fear of spreading COVID-19 to her family has brought Elizondo to tears before.

“When it all first started I just remember having a meltdown with my sister-in-law, and telling her that I didn’t know if I could do this because I was scared to come home and bring something to my mother,” she said.

“… I don’t know if she’d be able to survive it if she got COVID. So that was really hard to process and to accept. I haven’t gotten COVID…  I get anxious more than ever as I’m getting ready for work because I don’t know what I’m going into.”

‘TOGETHER WE CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE’

For those in hospitals and in the health care system, the experience can be both tragic and uplifting. For Elizondo, every day is different as a charge nurse in the ER, taking care of six to 15 patients a night, depending on the situation.

So, when Elizondo’s manager told her about the nurses in Kentucky being potential candidates to appear in the “In Case of Emergency” documentary, she was excited that the world was going to see what emergency nurses go through on a daily basis.

“They started recording us in action, we had all the lights and they were doing our makeup and I felt like a movie star for a little bit which was really cool,” she said with a laugh.

Elizondo was one of several nurses, some from the University of Kentucky and other various hospitals, to be picked to be in the documentary.

“I’ve been humbled this whole time,” she said at being featured at the 14-minute mark in the film. “I’m internally excited and just so humbled, humbled that I’m one of the few that got selected to come out in the documentary. The documentary shows how our healthcare system is failing. Just the population in general don’t have regular, basic primary care so they come to the emergency department. So that’s a huge reason why the emergency department is overcrowded all the time and it’s not just ours, it’s emergency departments throughout the nation.”

Despite exhausting 12-hour shifts, and the emotional and physical strain of a massive workload, Elizondo is proud to say that she is a nurse.

“It’s something that I’ve worked hard to do,” she said. “There are some things that you see that you’ll never forget … But being able to get to hold a patient’s hand for a little bit and make them feel secure while they’re getting news from the physician or getting an exam done or something like that, just that kind of stuff makes me feel that I’m really glad that I do what I do.”

Over the years, being a former PSJA student has stuck with Elizondo and continues to influence her ambitions. She is still learning and growing as a nurse, and is a part of a dual program at University of South Alabama to become an acute care nurse practitioner and family nurse practitioner.

Elizondo was a cheerleader in high school, and said she still carries the standards her coach had for the team and applies it to the duty of taking care of her patients.

“One thing I remember is that my cheerleading coach would not let us give her anything less than a 110%,” she said. “I’ve definitely taken that with me because that’s just how I live with everything that I do. If I’m going to do something, I’m going to give it 110%.

“I don’t know how to do anything less, so I’ve definitely taken that from them. And the most important thing is to make a difference. ‘Together we can make a difference.’ That’s what PSJA’s slogan was when I went. Together you really can make a difference.”


Julisa Nevarez is a student at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.