Written by Nancy Sokoler Steiner | Photos by Vincent Rios
Sheryl Callau figured it was stress causing her chest tightness. As the
lead nurse on 5 East PCU, she wasn’t yet treating COVID-19 patients.
However, 5 East was designated to shortly become a COVID-19 unit. That
meant not only would she face higher risk of contracting the virus, she
might also inadvertently pass it to her two young daughters or her immunocompromised husband.
Like all of her Torrance Memorial colleagues, Callau was living through
an unprecedented time when the situation and protocols seemed to change
by the day. Horror stories coming out of Italy and New York put the hospital
on alert, and the possibility of being overwhelmed was on everyone’s
mind in late March.
“It was very draining physically and emotionally, knowing the statistics
and the numbers of people dying,” she said. Whenever she took a
deep breath, it “felt different,” Callau recalled. But she
checked her temperature and blood oxygenation frequently, and neither
As soon as she learned 5 East would be converted to a COVID-19 floor, Callau
and her husband, Jose, who works in Torrance Memorial’s engineering
department, began making preparations. They took steps to prevent Sheryl
from bringing an infection home to Jose or their daughters, ages 12 and
10. Jose had been treated for non-Hodgkins lymphoma last year. He had
only completed chemotherapy in October and was deemed in remission in
November, leaving him at high-risk of infection from COVID-19.
Sheryl started exclusively using one bathroom. Returning from the hospital,
she would undress, enter the house through the back door, and run straight
into the shower.
The couple coached their daughters on how to take on some household tasks,
including making their own breakfasts. Sheryl stayed in the master bedroom
and Jose slept on the couch or an air mattress in the living room.
Meanwhile, Sheryl learned she had been exposed to COVID-19. On Sunday,
April 5, Sheryl’s temperature reached 100.3. She called her doctor’s
office, and spoke to Dr. Eric Milefchik, chairman of infection control
for the medical center, who was on call that day.
“I told him I couldn’t complete a breath without having a small
cough at the end,” she said. “He recommended I get swabbed.”
She got tested the next day. Despite having body aches, Sheryl still didn’t
think she had the virus. But on Wednesday, April 8, she learned she had
tested positive for COVID-19. She and her family would need to quarantine
for 14 days.
Torrance Memorial offered to pay for a hotel if either Sheryl or Jose wanted
to stay in a separate location. “We appreciated the kind gesture,
but we decided to stay together as a family,” she said.
During her illness, Sheryl experienced headaches, body aches and an inability
to take deep breaths. “My heart would race from just walking to
the bathroom,” she says.
She was in touch with her regular physician, Dr. Angelica Malicdem, throughout
“Her treatment consisted of frequent telephone calls, a telemedicine
conference to review symptoms and a follow-up office visit,” said
Dr. Malicdem via email. “I prescribed breathing exercises, Tylenol
for body aches and a bronchodilator over a four week period.”
At home, Sheryl and Jose had traded roles.
Now he had become the caretaker as she had been when he was fighting cancer.
She communicated with her daughters via text. During her illness, sleep
frequently eluded Sheryl. And when she did sleep, she would often wake
up sweating and panicked.
“I had a lot of fear and anxiety that I’d need to go to the
hospital,” she says. At the same time, she realized Torrance Memorial
“knew what they were doing. I have a family there and I’d
be well taken care of.”
Sheryl truly sees Torrance Memorial as family. It’s where she got
her first job as a nurse technician. She earned her bachelor’s degree
with the help of the medical center’s education assistance program.
Torrance Memorial is where she met Jose, and where she delivered her two
daughters. She has worked here for 21 years.
During her illness, being a nurse had pros and cons. One the one hand,
Sheryl could assess her own symptoms. She used a pulse oximeter, which
she referred to as her “lifeline,” to frequently reassure
herself she wasn’t in danger. Her lowest reading was 94%. On the
other hand, she knew how quickly a COVID-19 patient could decompensate
and need intubation.
Sheryl also felt extremely supported by her Torrance Memorial family. “I
received constant texts from Mike Ramirez, my manager, checking to see
how I was doing. He even told me he would pick me up if I felt like I
needed to come to the hospital. My director, Sean Yokoe, reached out to
see if we needed food and to remind me to come in if I got short of breath.
I received a card from the Chief Nursing Officer, Mary Wright, and VP
of Nursing Shanna Hall which I loved getting. Once I was out of quarantine,
the nurses from my floor drove by my house, playing music and waving signs.
They dropped off flowers and goodies. I was overwhelmed by the outpouring
After having three symptom-free days, Sheryl was anxious to return to work.
Dr. Malicdem said her x-ray and labs looked good but urged Sheryl to give
herself a week to rest and recuperate from muscle deconditioning.
She returned to Torrance Memorial on May 1. “I missed work. This
is what I do,” said Sheryl who felt confident returning knowing,
“We have PPE and we know what we’re doing. There is still
fear of the unknown, but the hospital is taking good care of us.”
Sheryl plans to donate plasma as a way of giving back and helping others.
And eight weeks after her diagnosis, Sheryl reports her husband and daughters
tested negative for COVID-19 antibodies.
“My story’s not a big story,” she insists. “I’m
lucky my case was mild. To me, the story is the wonderful support I got
from my family, my community and Torrance Memorial. I was overwhelmed
by so much love and generosity.”