Monica Ortiz Credit: Emmanuel Garcia

They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. If that’s the case, then Monica Ortiz should be almost invulnerable.

The fact that Ortiz has been through a lot over the past year is obvious from the very first question asked of her, which was a general inquiry into her physical and mental wellness. “Interesting . . . Oh, my goodness!,” she responds before jokingly adding, “This is like a therapy call!” She then says, “Physically, I’m okay. Mentally and emotionally, I am low to medium—but I am helping myself, so I don’t feel too low.”

Helping herself during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic involved getting therapy and advocating for herself, she says. The latter activity aided her when Ortiz, then a nurse with Chicago Public Schools, felt she was being put in the wrong group for what she was dealing with—including PTSD and anxiety—and it turned out she was right. “They said, ‘Yeah, we feel you should be in a different type of group, and we apologize,’” she says. “So it feels good to be somewhere where I’m going to get the kind of help I need.”

During those early months of the COVID pandemic, the schools were under lockdown, of course. However, Ortiz did have a second job—working at a senior living facility, which became its own curse. “People were getting COVID, I had to work double hours seven days a week—and then I got COVID, so I was out for three weeks,” she says. “And when I [returned], I was working like crazy, and you can’t leave the clients alone. There were many sleepless nights and lots of coffee. It was a lot.” It wasn’t until August/September that she was able to catch her breath, but “we lost a lot of patients along the way,” she adds. “It was really sad.”

Ortiz contracted COVID “around the beginning of April, and I had no symptoms at all,” she relates. “The only reason I decided to stay home was because the patient I was taking care of had just [tested] positive; I was the only nurse taking care of her. Something told me to just stay home and wait for my test results—and it turned out I had it.

“I had no results for eight days, and it took [that long] to get my results. But then, during the second week, I got pretty sick. I was extremely lethargic, I had no appetite and my bones hurt so bad; it was so painful for days. And then when that started to subside, I had breathing problems. I then had to get an inhaler and lung expander. Those problems happened for about a week. It was scary. I didn’t know what was going to happen.”

And to top it all off, Ortiz was concerned about possibly passing COVID on to her then-partner. “We took the proper measures. We slept in separate beds. Thank goodness we had a space with two bedrooms. And we even had a COVID station with alcohol spray and gloves. Everyone was split down the middle; thank goodness she never got it.

“And then when I went back to work, I was still in an environment with COVID and patients. So they have this whole routine: getting naked in the hallway, putting everything in a paper bag, running straight to the shower, washing my hair, brushing my teeth, scrubbing my hands—all in hot water, and at least 30 minutes. And then I wore masks and gloves in the house. This happened for a very long time.”

Some people, especially those who work in medical settings, have suffered survivor’s guilt—but Ortiz says she’s not one of those individuals: “I’m extremely grateful I didn’t pass away. I don’t take anything for granted. If I wanted to, I could’ve stopped working and got unemployment from CPS—but that’s not why I became a nurse. I became a nurse to help people, and you put yourself in there. I’m grateful I was able to survive [COVID] and that I could help patients.” 

But Ortiz encountered yet another hurdle during this year of living dangerously. “I have bipolar II disorder, PTSD, and anxiety,” Ortiz says. “Because I didn’t work at CPS, I didn’t have insurance any longer—and with this new job, the insurance didn’t kick in for a while. So I was extremely worried about not getting my medication, and I couldn’t see my therapist or psychiatrist. But I was able to get in touch with a therapist and get my prescriptions; I would’ve really gone down a rabbit hole without [the medication]. I’ve done that before. I can’t imagine people not having access to those resources.” 

Ortiz stresses that, despite battling COVID, she is fully vaccinated. When asked what she would tell people who are hesitant about getting vaccinated, Ortiz says, “Black and Brown people have a history of not trusting medicine because we haven’t historically had access to it. That’s a very valid feeling, but I also say you have to read up on it. If it’s something that’s going to protect you and your family, then that’s something that needs to be considered. COVID is very real. And sometimes it’s not about dying; it’s about quality of life. It’s about taking control of our own health.”

It was apparent that the spirit she displays, even during a phone call, shows that Ortiz has a never-say-die attitude. Over the past year and during this conversation, she shows what she is: a true survivor.

“I’m grateful about life, honestly,” says Ortiz, who now works as a nurse manager for caregivers of the elderly. “I’ve had a lot of trauma in my life and since this didn’t take me out, either, I’m very grateful.

“I learned that I’m a kick-ass nurse,” she adds, with a laugh. “I also learned that mental health is a stigma and that it doesn’t define me—a Brown, queer woman. I’ve learned to take care of myself and my mental health.”  v

This coverage is made possible by support from the Chicago Foundation for Women.
This story was written in collaboration with ALMA Chicago to share and archive the stories of LGBTQ Latinx individuals in Chicago during the COVID-19 pandemic. For more information, visit ALMAChicago.org.