When Refynd Duro was approached about attending President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, she immediately asked: Why me?
Duro, of Galloway, has been a nurse for nearly 20 years and works in the progressive care unit at Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. Over the past two years, she’s looked after COVID-19 patients who are no longer at the critical level that warrants intensive care.
That doesn’t mean they’re better, though. Duro said these patients are awake and feel their pain. They become anxious when they realize they can’t breathe, and their oxygen levels drop as a result.
“Every day, I had to pray on my way to work that everything’s going to be okay,” she said through tears.
Duro was invited to Biden’s speech on Tuesday through connections with the Ohio Nurses Association, who know her as an advocate for patient safety and bedside nurses. Duro, who was born in the Philippines and grew up in Hilliard, said First Lady Jill Biden was specifically looking for an Asian-American nurse to invite.
Also in attendance was Danielle Robinson, the widow of Pickerington veteran Heath Robinson. A model soldier twice recognized by the Ohio National Guard, Heath Robinson died from cancer in 2020 and attributed his illness to smoke exposure from burning trash pits during his deployment to Iraq in 2006 and 2007.
Anti-Asian hate crimes in Ohio and nationwide increased throughout the pandemic, and Asian-Americans bore the brunt of prejudice from people who blamed China for the virus. Duro said patients often asked where she’s from, and she’d tell them Hilliard before realizing what they really meant.
“In the beginning, they were hesitant, and I felt like I had to prove myself,” she said.
Biden did not mention Duro during his speech, but he painted an optimistic future free from the pandemic’s grip with the help of treatments and vaccines. Duro said she wishes he would’ve taken more time to honor nurses and other health care workers, but she still felt privileged to be there.
Duro celebrated her birthday on Sunday, and she said White House staff sang “Happy birthday” to her and other guests who had recent birthdays. She looks forward to telling her 4-year-old son Noah about the experience when he’s older.
“It was still an honor to be part of that,” she said. “It’s history. I’ll never forget it.”
Duro never expected a global pandemic to disrupt her life and job, but she’s sticking with it even as the hospital contends with staffing shortages and colleagues look for new, less stressful opportunities. She said she’s not as scared as she was two years ago, but urged people to stay diligent as mask mandates and other safety measures are relaxed.
“I feel like it’s a step toward being free from COVID,” Duro said. “It feels good. However, we just have to be careful.”
Haley BeMiller is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.
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