By Meg McIntyre
LOWELL — There’s not much in life that Elizabeth and Katherine Conole haven’t gone through together.
The 25-year-old fraternal twins, who share a house in Tyngsboro, have been side by side through high school, college and now their careers as nurses at Lowell General Hospital. And for the past few months, they’ve also been taking on a new challenge together — caring for COVID-19 patients on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.
Prior to the public health emergency, Elizabeth Conole worked on the hospital’s progressive care unit, while Katherine Conole was assigned to the cardiac unit. Now, they’re primarily working with coronavirus patients and stepping up to help out in intensive care when necessary.
“A lot has changed,” Elizabeth Conole said recently. “The acuity of patients has been increasingly high. We’ve had two extra ICUs open, and since we’re stepdown level nurses, we’ve had to float down to the ICUs and help out, which can be a little stressful because you’re not an ICU nurse. But we’re willing to help be a part of the team to take care of the patients.”
The twins’ careers in nursing have been a long time in the making. They grew up in Dracut in a “health care family,” as they describe it. Their father is a retired Dracut firefighter and their mother was a mental health counselor. Their goal of becoming nurses stretches all the way back to their preschool graduation, they explained, when they announced they’d be working in the profession someday.
After graduating from Dracut High School in 2012, both sisters studied nursing at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and went on to work on the same unit for nearly two years at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H. They came to work at Lowell General — the hospital they were born in — in June 2018.
In recent weeks, the hospital’s atmosphere has been marked by “a lot of death,” the twins said, noting that their role of updating family members has become even more important in a time when visitation is strictly limited. Katherine Conole recalled a recent moment when she and another nurse were frantically trying to get video chat to work on a patient’s phone as he was being transferred to the ICU to be intubated.
“In the moment it was — these patients tend to recover, but you never know,” she said. “So that could have been the last time he talks to his wife.”
The sisters said there have also been positive moments, from the frequent food deliveries on their floors to drive-by parades celebrating hospital staff, which they said have been nice reminders that the community appreciates the work they’re doing.
“If you haven’t sat down or taken your mask off in like six hours, a cold Gatorade makes a difference,” Katherine Conole said.
At their home in Tyngsboro, the sisters take time for themselves outside of the hospital by going for bike rides and tending to their vegetable garden. They twins said it’s been helpful to have each other for support and understanding when they are going through similar experiences at work, though they also try to stagger their shifts to ensure each of them gets alone time when they need it.
They noted that, despite the stress, they’re proud of the work they’re doing at Lowell General.
“As physically and emotionally challenging as the last couple of weeks have been, I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else in this pandemic situation or with a different team,” Katherine Conole said.
“I always knew how important nurses are, but it’s just been so eye-opening how valuable they are to the care team. We’re the ones going in the rooms most often,” Elizabeth Conole added.
“I’ve just been really grateful for nursing and my team and how we’ve been able — even under challenging circumstances — we’ve been able to deliver passionate and great care to these patients.”