Op-Ed: A nurse died after treating a COVID-19 patient. Here’s how you can help save medical workers like us

N95 respirator masks
Healthcare workers are dying for want of a $1 mask.
(Ana B. Ibarra / California Healthline)

In the hospital emergency department where I work, we were starting to get used to our new normal, the regular flow of COVID-19 patients along with the everyday emergencies — heart attacks, strokes and trauma.

And then, one of our own came into the emergency room sick. With COVID-19.

My drive home that night pulled dread and sadness along from the hospital like a wake.

The next morning, I woke to the front-page story about the death of Celia Marcos, a nurse wearing only a surgical mask who ran to treat a COVID-19 patient who had stopped breathing. Because seconds count, she chose not to try to get a proper mask before entering the room, her colleagues told the paper.

Her medical training and the drive to save a patient launched her on a suicide mission.

It was a gut punch, this unnecessary death over a one-dollar N95 mask, this loss of an experienced nurse just when we need nurses most.


We run the plays — the tasks we perform to pull patients back from the edge of death — over and over in our heads. We spend years training, repeating and perfecting techniques.

But we never thought we would have to worry about PPE.

Help the Los Angeles Times reimagine what California should look like after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.

Now, staffs at every hospital in America can’t be sure they will have enough equipment to see us through the crisis. Three months into the pandemic, the problem is still unsolved.

There is a lot we don’t know about Marcos’ death, but nurses who worked with her told this newspaper that she wasn’t issued an N95 mask at the start of her shift. “The hospital wasn’t giving us appropriate PPE — the N95s were locked,” one nurse said. The nurses’ union has filed a complaint with the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration, saying her death was “the result of inadequate PPE provided to staff.”

Tom Brady won’t even go out on the field without his favorite helmet, and refs stop play the instant one pops off a player’s head. It’s too dangerous.

At least half a dozen doctors, nurses and staff have died in the U.S., including some who warned they did not have the equipment they needed.

I know I am taking a calculated risk every time I go to work. It is what I signed up to do.

But I won’t take the chance treating COVID-19 patients without proper PPE. To honor Marcos’ memory, no nurse or doctor should. The Hippocratic oath doesn’t include a suicide clause.

If our nation doesn’t quickly nationalize the manufacture and distribution of PPE, ensuring that every hospital treating COVID-19 patients has enough high-quality protection, then who will be there to treat the next big spike in cases?

You can help.

First, protect yourself. Keep social distancing. Minimize going out, and wear your mask when you do.

Then urge your local and national leaders to nationalize PPE production and stop the profiteering, middlemen and state-against-state competition.

Call Fox News, tweet the president until he blocks you, stand up in your home office and make your voice heard.

When they ask for a name, tell them you are Celia Marcos.

Mark Morocco is a Los Angeles physician and professor of emergency medicine.