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Annabelle Vicknair rises to challenge of COVID-19 crisis

LUTCHER — There was never any doubt that Annabelle Vicknair would become a nurse. The path to her career was laser-focused, especially after she battled cancer at 21 years old and learned to identify with the rollercoaster of emotions patients feel.

Vicknair gladly followed in the footsteps of her grandmother and mother to become a third generation healthcare worker. She’s seen a lot in her 10 years in the field and in her role as a med surgical nurse at St. James Parish Hospital, but the coronavirus pandemic was something no one could predict.

“I’ve done a lot of things. I’ve taken care of tuberculosis patients, people with AIDS, people with different diseases. I’ve done that,” Vicknair said. “The difference with corona patients is that nobody really knows the extent of how infectious people are. The patient and the staff are in full PPE. The family can’t even come and be with them.”

Vicknair quickly adapted to working in the corona unit, where hospital staff was the only lifeline to patients separated from their families. Some made it and others did not. No matter what happened, Vicknair had to stay strong and keep moving.
All the while, she was separated from her own family. Each time she returned home from work, she retreated to a large camper in her backyard to keep her husband and two boys safe. After being exposed to infectious diseases from patients, the last thing she wanted to do was bring the virus home.

Annabelle Vicknair is pictured with Kirby Becnel, Shawna Morra and Nicole Boe at St. James Parish Hospital.

“I quarantined myself from day one,” Vicknair said. “My husband and my child are asthmatic, so I stayed in the camper for weeks, just going back and forth from work. There were long days.”

Vicknair answered the call to work on the frontline because she knew others could not. Some nurses at the hospital were pregnant or had endured transplants, and the unknowns surrounding the virus made it too risky. It took a team effort from those who were capable and healthy to navigate the public health emergency.

“We had people from different departments, nurses from outpatient, surgery and the ER all stepping in to help with the influx of corona patients,” Vicknair said. “We are a small hospital, and we really pulled together to take care of these patients. It took all of us to care for them. It was not just me; it was the whole staff, including administration.”

While times were certainly hard, there were glimmers of hope sprinkled throughout the experience. It was inspiring to see patients overcome the odds.

One such success story was an elderly man who had numerous risk factors stacked against him. He was an 84-year-old African American man with hypertension, teetering on the verge of being put on a ventilator.

“The coronavirus has been a learning curve for most medical professionals, doctors and all,” Vicknair said. “This patient had a struggle for about 14 days where we didn’t know and his family didn’t know if he was going to make it. We were in close contact with his family on a daily basis. He was very close to his daughters, who couldn’t see him.”

After 17 days, the man completely came off of oxygen and was ready to walk out of the hospital on his own.

Vicknair decided to commemorate the joyous occasion.

According to a spokesperson from St. James Parish Hospital, Vicknair took it upon herself to coordinate the making of signs, reach out to the patient’s family and encourage staff to give him a proper send-off. The first patient parade, captured in a video on the St. James Parish Hospital Facebook page, shows the patient holding a sign that read, “84 years young, 17 days in the hospital, and I survived.”

Chief Nursing Officer Rhonda Zeringue said Vicknair went above and beyond her responsibilities as a nurse during the COVID-19 response while keeping a positive mindset.

Vicknair’s advice to aspiring nurses is to make sure they are willing to put their lives on the line for the people they care for.

“We are exposed to everything that the patients have, their treatments, their illnesses, and it is No. 1 that the patient comes first,” Vicknair said. “Make sure your family is aware of what they have to give up. They have to be prepared as much as you are to be separated in these types of situations.”

Vicknair resides in St. James Parish with her husband, Jire Vicknair, and her sons, Brody and Blaize Vicknair.