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Lost On The Frontline

Nurse At Nevada VA Dies After Caring For Infected Colleague

Vianna Thompson (Courtesy of Bob Thompson)

Vianna Thompson, 52

Occupation: Nurse
Places of Work: VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System and Northern Nevada Medical Center in Reno, Nevada
Date of Death: April 7, 2020

Nurse Vianna Thompson, 52, spent two night shifts caring for a fellow Veterans Affairs health care worker who was dying from COVID-19.

Two weeks later, she too was lying in a hospital intensive care unit, with a co-worker holding her hand as she died.

Thompson and the man she treated were among three VA health care workers in Reno, Nevada, to die in two weeks from complications of the novel coronavirus.

“It’s pretty devastating. It’s surreal. Reno’s not that big of a city,” said Robyn Underhill, a night nurse who worked with Thompson in the ER at Reno’s VA hospital the past two years.

Thompson, who dreamed of teaching nursing one day, died April 7, joining a growing list of health care professionals killed in the pandemic.

Born Vianna Fye in Port Huron, Michigan, she became a go-getter nurse who worked almost exclusively at night, putting in five or six 12-hour shifts a week, according to her husband, Bob Thompson, 60.

The couple met in 1991 on the Osan Air Base in South Korea, where he was an inventory management specialist in the Air Force, and she was a veterinary technician in the Army, caring for military police dogs. They bonded over two-step dancing and country music.

Vianna was a “proud momma,” often showing off photos and videos of their three sons on her phone, her husband said. As the main breadwinner for over eight years, she juggled two jobs to make sure her boys had everything they needed, including saxophones, drums and keyboards so they could play jazz and country music. “She was just sweet, big-hearted, caring, unselfish,” he said.

Before she died, Thompson was working two jobs: full time in the ER at the VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System in Reno, and part time in the ICU at Northern Nevada Medical Center.

In the ICU, she tended to a fellow VA health care worker who had fallen ill with COVID-19, according to nurse Underhill. Two days later, on March 29, Thompson arrived at work with a cough.

“She came to work sick, and we were all very concerned,” Underhill said. “Call it intuition, call it ‘Spidey sense,’ but I knew that moment that she was coughing that this was not going to end well.”

Underhill said Thompson already had a slight smoker’s cough, so she may have overlooked the fact that her cough was a classic symptom of COVID-19.

“She was in denial that she was taking care of this high-risk population,” Underhill said. And she was reluctant to miss work.

That Sunday shift would be Thompson’s last. Over the next four days, she wrestled with fever, weakness and shortness of breath. The following Thursday, she texted her husband from the bedroom: “Call the ambulance, I can hardly breathe.”

She was taken to the VA hospital where she worked and immediately sedated and put on a ventilator.

The next Tuesday, her organs were failing and it was time to remove life support, her husband said. They connected him on FaceTime to say goodbye, and a nurse held her hand as she died.

As a veteran, she qualified for an “honor flight,” in which the patient’s body is covered with a black box, draped with an American flag and wheeled through the hospital while others line up and salute.

Because of the infectious nature of the coronavirus, a flag could not be safely draped over her body, so someone walked in front of her with a flag.

Bob Thompson said the honor flight ceremony drew more people into the hallways than staff had seen in 20 years, “all the way from the ICU to the morgue.”

“God’s getting a hell of a nurse,” he said.

This story is part of “Lost on the Frontline,” an ongoing project by The Guardian and Kaiser Health News that aims to document the lives of health care workers in the U.S. who die from COVID-19, and to investigate why so many are victims of the disease. If you have a colleague or loved one we should include, please share their story.

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