MAASTRICHT, Netherlands -- When Vanessa Banks-Gonzales, an experienced acute care nurse practitioner and spouse of Lt. Cmdr. Daniel Gonzales III, heard about Maastricht University Hospital's need for volunteers with medical experience, she answered the call.
In the past six weeks, Banks-Gonzales has been working alongside Dutch colleagues at the Maastricht COVID-19 intensive care unit, where she takes care of severely ill patients: people who depend on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) – artificial lungs – for respiratory support.
Operating an ECMO requires an advanced degree, for which Banks-Gonzales had right credentials. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in nursing and a master’s degree as an acute care nurse practitioner after receiving two Jack Kent Cooke scholarships.
"After the COVID crisis started in the Netherlands, we had a great shortage of ICU personnel," said Dr. Jan-Willem Sels, the intensive care specialist Banks-Gonzales works with at the hospital. "When Mrs. Banks came to us with her credentials, we didn't hesitate for one moment."
The Gonzales Family moved to Maastricht when Gonzales received orders to serve with the Coastguard at the NATO base in Brunssum. Daughter Jillian joined, and son Caleb lives in New York City.
Before the crisis, Banks-Gonzales regularly returned to the U.S. to work at the MedStar Washington Hospital Center, where she holds a particular employment status.
"I am very lucky with my job in Washington," she said. "It allows me to maintain my personal identity and independence. I have an incredible boss and support system in America, and I'm very grateful that I get to practice, stay relevant. Some spouses don't have that opportunity."
As the crisis hit, her immediate desire was to go back to America and support her colleagues and people affected. When it became clear that a return journey would be impossible, Banks-Gonzales felt guilty.
"I was staying at home when I could help,” she said. “I didn't want my work family to suffer, to go through that alone. We always go in together."
With no option than to stay in the Netherlands, she turned her attention to local initiatives and organizations. Finally, it was an English news report by RTV Maastricht that caught her attention: Maastricht University Hospital was looking for help from volunteers with any medical experience. On a Thursday, she met with the hospital staff, on the Monday after that, she started.
"When Vanessa came and offered her help, we gladly accepted," said Sels. "What we're experiencing now with the coronavirus is unlike anything we've ever encountered. We're used to very sick people, but the sheer volume of patients in the ICU, especially in the first weeks, was overwhelming. A sizeable number of these patients die in the ICU, so it made a big impression on all of us."
Banks-Gonzales kept up with the literature and had heard about the protocols from her colleagues in America, so she came prepared.
"It was what I expected," she said. "People were very sick, almost everybody in the ICU was on a ventilator. There were no visitors allowed, and nurses at the bedside were working diligently to get the patients better. It was really scary, because people were really sick."
Her work evolved quickly. Initially, she was asked to help the nurses care for ECMO patients. Then, she also started working with the medical team as a provider, developing plans of care and monitoring patients throughout the day.
Working at the COVID-19 unit does come at a cost – a personal sacrifice that remains mostly unseen.
"I'm going to be exposed to a virus that's potentially very dangerous. My priority as a mother and a wife is to protect my family," Banks-Gonzales said. "We have set up a separate sleeping space, with a private bathroom, to prevent the spreading of germs. I now sleep separately from my husband of 24 years."
She also thinks twice before going out in public, to make sure other people don't fall sick.
“Whenever possible, my husband and daughter go out for errands,” she said. “And the Coast Guard Family has been very supportive, they get our mail on the base."
The sacrifices of nurses don't end when they leave the hospital; they carry on into their everyday life.
“It's an enormous testament to what a nurse is and what nurses do: we run headfirst into situations no matter how scary they are, whether it's corona, language barriers, or practice differences," said Banks-Gonzales.
Banks-Gonzales is no stranger to sacrifice; she grew up as a military child and was, herself, on active duty in the Coast Guard for five years.
"I think that's what we as a military Family are accustomed to, making sacrifices for the greater good,” she said. “It’s not foreign to us."
The actions of Banks-Gonzales elicited admiration from her colleagues.
"She is willing to make personal sacrifices for the greater good, which is admirable,” said Dr. Sels. “Of course, we, too, do our best, but we get paid for it. Mrs. Banks does it because she feels she has to help. That's intrinsic motivation, that’s something inspiring and admirable.”
On her side, Banks-Gonzales is grateful for the sacrifices made by people in the community.
"Thank you for following the measures and continuing to follow the measures until the government says it's safe,” she said. “It really sends a positive message to us healthcare professionals that the work we're doing is appreciated and supported."
She is optimistic about the easing of the measures, while also concerned.
"I'm happy that the Netherlands is taking an eased, step-by-step approach, showing great care and concern and a willingness to listen to medical experts,” Banks-Gonzales said. “And I'm also happy to go out and get a haircut."