‘Love is more contagious than COVID’

As a nurse in the COVID-19 unit of a Catholic hospital in Richmond, Nerissa Lorenzo had the support of her husband Erik and their son Charlie despite the risk. She contracted the coronavirus in May and continues to recover. (Photo courtesy of Nerissa Lorenzo)

Faith fortifies nurse dealing with coronavirus


For 17 years, Nerissa Lorenzo put on her scrubs and went to work. She spent her days caring for others – taking vitals, assessing patients, administering medications, offering support to families, helping in any way she could.

Nursing is more than just a profession for Lorenzo; it’s a calling — a way to express her faith.

One could say it was in her blood: her father, sister and several cousins are all in the health care field.

“My parents taught us that it is not enough just to go to church on Sunday. We have to live everyday like Christ, to be kind, to do what’s right, to be humble,” she said.

Lorenzo’s first degree was in microbiology, but she didn’t feel connected to the field. Looking for something more fulfilling, she spent a summer at a Washington, D.C. medical facility for the homeless called Christ House.

“It allowed me to open my eyes to the lack of and the need for available health care,” she said. “I knew that I wanted to do something that’s meaningful.”

This soon led her to nursing.

World changes

Over the years, Lorenzo has worked in various cardiac, thoracic and care units. She works at a Catholic hospital in Richmond where she has seen many illnesses and helped hundreds of patients. But in May 2020, her world changed.

When news of the coronavirus was first reported by the nation’s media, there was little information and many unknowns, but Lorenzo had a feeling the virus would not go quietly.

“I knew that once a case was identified in the U.S., it wouldn’t take long for the virus to spread across the country. It was only a matter of time before it would reach this state, this city, this community,” she said.

Lorenzo’s unit was gradually transformed into a COVID unit. The mother of a 10-year-old son, Charlie, she educated him early about the virus and made sure he understood the risks she was taking working with COVID-19 patients. Her son and her husband, Erik, gave her their full support.

“I knew that every day I worked there was a risk of exposure,” Lorenzo said. “It didn’t stop me from caring for my patients, from giving them respect, from treating them the best that I could.”

She explained that caring for a hospitalized COVID patient is complex because of the myriad of health conditions that can be exacerbated by the disease and because the disease manifests itself differently in different people.

‘God was with me’

Lorenzo began noticing symptoms a few days after Mother’s Day. Her body ached, her head burned, her breathing shallowed.

“The phrase, ‘It’s like I’ve been hit by a bus,’ is an understatement,” she said.

By the 10th day, Lorenzo couldn’t breathe and was rushed to the hospital. She remembers the look of fear and sadness on her son’s face when the EMTs arrived.

Lorenzo remained in the hospital for five days before returning home, where she stayed in the guest room for weeks and only saw her husband and son via FaceTime.

“I felt imprisoned within my home. It was hard not to be able to hug them or kiss them goodnight. My husband ended up testing positive for the coronavirus, and it broke my heart,” she said, noting her husband only exhibited mild symptoms and her son has not tested positive.

One thing Lorenzo has clung to for support has been her commitment to putting faith ahead of fear.

“Faith has been central in my COVID journey,” she said. “Having spent many days in isolation, you can imagine how alienated I felt from the world outside the four walls of the bedroom. But I knew that God was with me, and I trusted in him to help me not feel so alone in this battle. When I wanted just to stay in bed all day and cry and feel anxious and afraid, I would just pray.”

Lorenzo started her days praying the Our Father and ended them reciting the rosary. She also began sharing her story on social media as a way to educate others and put a familiar local face on the global disease.

Her church community, St. Edward the Confessor, Richmond, has rallied around her, offering prayers, meals and care packages.

“I am beyond grateful to our community for their love and support,” she said. “They have nourished our bodies and souls with their kindness. Even though the COVID virus is contagious, love is more contagious.”

Ready to return

Lorenzo continues to test positive, despite being homebound since mid-May and being symptom-free since early June. She has to wait seven days between tests and needs two consecutive negative tests before she can return to work, something she is eager to do.

“I want to go back because it’s what I do,” she explained. “I want to care for patients. I want to help these patients and their families get through this difficult time. Having been through it, I empathize with what they’re going through. Being isolated in that hospital room, a COVID room, not being able to have visitors, it can be very lonely. I want to go back and tell my patients, ‘I know what you’re going through, and I’m going to help you get through it.’”

Lorenzo said that the relationship between a provider and a COVID patient is unique. Since COVID patients are rarely allowed visitors, their only interaction is with nurses and doctors. They become a kind of makeshift family, a support system.

“Many are scared. Some are angry. Sometimes these patients just want us to be with them, to hold their hand,” she said.

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