These retired nurses and many others were in urgent demand this year to fight Covid-19.
CNN  — 

Juliana Morawski has realized that she most likely couldn’t go back to working in an emergency room, even if she wanted to. As a retired emergency nurse of 30 years, that realization is hard for someone who just wants to lend a helping hand on the front lines.

But even though she isn’t in the ER, Morawski, 69, is working at an Illinois clinic, answering phones and administering Covid-19 vaccines, and she told CNN she takes comfort in knowing that “anything is better than nothing.”

She said due to her age and some minor health problems, she thinks ER managers would consider her a high risk.

“I still, honestly, feel guilty that I’m not able to help (in the ER) because they (nurses) are so burned out,” she said. “They’re definitely getting hammered and hammered, daily.”

Morawski got a first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine last week and said she’s looking forward to the second dose next month.

“We’re under threat, more than any other time I can remember in emergency medicine,” Morawski told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota in April. “I’ve never seen emergency departments or nursing or any of the services, actually, in general, under so much threat. And it’s a family. So when family is threatened, you try to step up as much as you can.”

Juliana Morawski

Call to action

In March, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, along with officials from around the world, put out calls for qualified healthcare workers to dig out their scrubs and return to their craft to help fight on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.

Evelyn Ochoa-Celano, 63, answered that call despite having retired from nursing, three months prior. Unfortunately a few months later, she died of coronavirus herself.

Ochoa-Celano retired from a city hospital in the Bronx, New York, her son, John Tabaniag told CNN, but was picking up part-time shifts at a nursing home on Long Island to stay busy.

After Cuomo’s letter came out, Ochoa-Celano called her son to say she was transitioning back to full-time work at the nursing home.

As much as Tabaniag was proud of his mom for wanting to fight on the front lines, he was worried about her health. Having lost his stepfather and younger brother, he feared losing his mother, too.

“I don’t have any kids, my mom and my wife are the only people that I have closest to me,” he said. “I just didn’t want her to get sick.”

Evelyn Ochoa-Celano, right, who came out of retirement to help, only to die a few months later of coronavirus herself.

Tabaniag described Ochoa-Celano as a strong, independent woman and said she was the first of her siblings to come to the United States from the Philippines to work as a nurse and “put in roots for the rest of the family.”

Nearly a third of the nurses who’ve died of coronavirus in the US are Filipino, even though Filipino nurses make up just 4% of the nursing population nationwide.

“I don’t know if I was wasting my breath because in my head, no matter how scared I was, how hard I tried, if she said she was going to do something, there’s almost nothing you could have done to stop her.”

Ochoa-Celano got sick during the first week of April and experienced coughing and shortness of breath. Ten days later, she was hospitalized, according to Tabaniag.

When she arrived at the hospital, Ochoa-Celano told him tearfully by phone, “I don’t want to die yet. I’m not ready.”

For six weeks, while Ochoa-Celano was intubated, Tabiang said he clung to his phone waiting for updates from nurses about his mother’s health, which rollercoastered up and down. Some days were better than others.

“You hang onto every little reaction that a person has,” he said. “The nurse would say she opened her eyes and looked around today and you look at that as a sign of hope, but the next day they say something else isn’t looking good and it literally crushes any hope you had.”

Ochoa-Celano told her son, "I don't want to die yet. I'm not ready."

On May 13, Tabaniag got a call that his mom’s health was deteriorating and made the agonizing decision to take her off assisted breathing.

While cleaning out Ochoa-Celano’s home, Tabaniag and his wife found the old scrubs his mother once wore to work. Instead of discarding them, Tabaniag’s wife turned them into face masks as a way to show him that no matter where his mother is, she’s still protecting her son.

John Tabaniag, Ochoa-Celano's son, wearing a mask made from his mother's old nursing scrubs

Jeopardizing your own health

Like Ochoa-Celano, Mary Millard, 69, also got a request to reinstate her license. It came from the Pennsylvania Department of State Board of Nursing on December 17 – some 14 years ago after Millard retired.

“Personally, I’m not interested,” she told CNN. “I just feel that I’ve been out of nursing for too long and to go back now during a pandemic would not be a wise move.”

Millard worked for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as a nurse for 35 years, and now lives in North Carolina.

In addition to living in another state now, Millard said her age puts her in the high risk category. And the possibility that she could infect one of her loved ones is too great.

Mary Millard retired from nursing 14 years ago -- too long ago to consider coming back, even briefly

“Physically, am I up to working a 12-to-15-hour shift? I don’t think so,” she said.

For others who are considering going back, Millard said she hopes they’ll consider whether they’re physically able to work the long hours, how their skills have aged and if they’re willing to jeopardize their own health to care for others.

“We’ve always had to do that in nursing (jeopardize your own health),” she said. “Now they’re saying front line workers and nurses are important and in a way it kind of upsets me because we’ve always been important.”

As for Morawski, the retired nurse at the clinic in Illinois, she said there’s still so much work that needs to be done but she’s grateful that she can help where she can. And she hopes – like so many others – that things get better soon.