Gaux Girl - Debora Yung

2020-10-27

For the first time ever, we opened up our Gaux Girl series to our wonderful community, asking you to nominate incredible women in your networks who went above and beyond to make a difference during the last six months. The stories you shared with us were touching and awe-inspiring: Thank you. 

We are grateful to share two powerful profiles with you this month. The first spotlighted Becca Taubel, a Manhattan teacher working with students with learning differences. The second introduces Debora Yung, an ICU nurse who balanced working on the front lines of the pandemic with caring for her infant daughter.


Being an ICU nurse with an infant would never have been an easy situation to navigate. For Debora Yung, the difficulties and stressors were multiplied twentyfold when COVID-19 hit New York City. Immediately, her job became an exercise in managing high stakes and emotional rollercoasters both at the hospital and at home. 

Her husband nominated Debora, explaining that her uptown hospital was one of the first to be hit with waves of COVID patients. 

"My wife was our hero throughout. This has been something that no one could have been prepared for. Debora has been physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted, taking on workloads double and triple what she normally would. The situations she’s found herself in have been tear-jerking and unspeakable," he wrote. "As trying as those times were, she woke up at 5 a.m. every morning—sans coffee because of breastfeeding our infant—put on fresh scrubs, showed up to work, and came home at 10 p.m. Rinse and repeat. She’s refused to take a day off because she knew every effort counted. Was she scared? Yes. Did she complain? No. She didn’t even tell me her feelings until after things started to get a bit better. She told me she wasn’t able to. Anyone who’s had to do her job is a hero. And to do it as a new mom...she’s our hero and I’ll always see her as my hero."

Below, our interview about the highs, lows, and how working during the pandemic has changed the way she looks at life. 

Your job must always have an intensity to it. How did that ramp up with the pandemic?

There is always a sense of urgency working in an intensive care unit. Most if not all of our patients are getting some form of mechanical or medical therapy that requires close, continuous monitoring. There’s usually a lot of movement happening simultaneously as our patients require multiple procedures, tests, and therapy throughout the day that involves the nurses. While it gets busy, it's overall a pretty controlled setting. However, during the peak of the pandemic, we knew very little about this new virus. Many of the patterns we were anticipating were often and quickly disrupted. Patients would constantly have sudden bouts of instability which made the setting chaotic at times because it felt like we were running around trying to catch the balls as they dropped in random patterns. Our bed capacity doubled to try to meet the demand and all of our patients were each on multiple life-saving machines. Our workload doubled and tripled overnight. All these factors caused a heightened sense of uncertainty and anxiety.  

What was the toughest part? There was a lot of news coverage around what nurses and doctors were going through—do you think they got anything wrong?

The toughest part for me wasn’t so much the physical part, which many were expecting because of all the extra critical patients to manage. Rather, it was the indirect implications. I’ve seen many sick patients on different spectrums before, but this time it’s different. I don’t think I was ready for it emotionally, but I don’t think you can ever prepare for it. At least, we couldn’t because this is unprecedented. No one knew how much of a mental and emotional burden it was going to be. 

The hardest reality for me was the fact that our patients die alone and truly isolated. They can have all the loving family members in the world and could have made immense differences in many people’s lives, but at the moment of their death, they are alone with no one to talk to them, no one to hold their hand, no one to stroke their forehead. At one point, they allowed one designated family member to come when the patient was imminently dying, [but they had to] stay outside the room to minimize exposure. By that time, the patient was too out-of-it to be aware that someone did come for them. And through the glass doors their voices were too muffled for the patient to even hear what they had to say. The nurses are carrying the load to make FaceTime calls or conference video calls to let the family say goodbye. The nurse was the one holding their hands to make a prayer as the patients took their last breath and beat their last pulse. The nurse is alone in the room with the patient so it all feels very lonely and sad.

What were the most rewarding parts? How did you find a way to smile through all these challenges?

Being able to come home to my happy baby and keeping myself and my family healthy was the biggest reward I could ask for.  

At work, it took weeks before our critical care unit began to see signs of recovery and that finally gave me some hope that people do have a chance of coming out of this. We cheered so hard when we were able to safely remove a patient's breathing tubes and they breathed successfully on their own.  Through the glass doors they could see and hear our excitement and they would wave back at us! 

Your work (and attitude) make you a hero to so many. Have you gotten comfortable with that sort of praise or does it feel strange to hear people talk about your profession that way?

As nurses have a distinct set of skills, knowledge, compassion, demeanor, and professionalism to help people at times of vulnerability. I do feel our profession wasn’t understood well by those who are not in the healthcare field. To be fair, I didn’t understand the dynamic role and responsibilities of a nurse until I started nursing school.  

I appreciate the light shining on the nursing profession and bringing awareness on how nurses play a direct role in healing and hope it inspires more people to come into this rewarding profession. I believe the efforts made by nurses, such as those on my team, were heroic, but it feels odd when someone calls me a hero individually. It took a whole team effort—nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists, physical therapists, pharmacists, etc. Everyone stepped up and was stretched thin. Silos were broken and roles became blurred at times as we supported each other however we could.

What do you think you'll take from this experience?

Working through the peak of the pandemic made me feel vulnerable in ways I’ve never felt before. I had a number of colleagues and their families who fell ill. Some were hospitalized; some didn’t make it and died. When it touched so close to home and everything was so uncertain, it raised a lot of fear and anxiety. Reflecting through all those feelings and persevering helped me develop resilience. It also reminded me that life is fragile and unpredictable, and I need to be present with the ones I love and care about. 

What does being a girl on the gaux mean to you?

A girl on the gaux is someone who is passionate about what she does, braves through challenges, and demonstrates resilience. 

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