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Profiles of our community: An unbreakable bond

As featured in the Maui News on June 5, 2020...

May Ann Espanol and Mariecon Mamaclay are about as close as two sisters can be. Literally.

Not only do they live within walking distance of one another, but they also work together at Maui Memorial Medical Center. Some may be surprised to learn that Espanol, a ward clerk, and Mamaclay, a nurse aide, never planned to work alongside each other in Haleakala South, the hospital’s telemetry and progressive care unit — it was purely by chance.

Mamaclay joined the hospital staff as a nurse aide in 2015; Espanol was hired as a ward clerk the following year. Of the 80 departments at Maui Memorial Medical Center, Espanol was randomly assigned to the unit where her younger sister works. The pair say they couldn’t have been happier with the serendipitous outcome. Scheduling-wise, their shifts don’t always overlap, but when they do, Mamaclay said, “We really like working together.”

The sisters never imagined their sibling bond could grow even stronger. But that’s what happened on Monday, April 6, when Haleakala South became a “warm unit” to care for COVID-positive patients, as well as persons under investigation (known as PUIs) for the virus. When they learned their ward would become a warm unit, Espanol and Mamaclay were understandably frightened.

“It was like a nightmare,” Espanol said. “I was so scared . . . I kept asking ‘why us?’“

But once the initial shock wore off, she says she found comfort in the knowledge that the 60 men and women who work in the unit — colloquially referred to as Hale South — could handle the daunting task.

“I knew we could do it,” Espanol said. “We are a good team.”

In the weeks that followed, the sisters adjusted to a new reality, one characterized by daily temperature checks, head-to-toe protective gear and plenty of sleepless nights.

Espanol said her workdays have ended the same way amid the pandemic. After a shift, she will drive home and sit quietly outside for several minutes, taking deep breaths of fresh air. The hard part comes next: Not hugging her three kids the moment she walks through the front door. Instead, she rushes to the bathroom to take a shower.

At night, she’s taken the extra precaution of sleeping on the living room couch. Like her older sister, Mamaclay has bunked on the living room couch to keep her family safe. Her eyes fill with tears as she describes how her 7-year-old son asks if it’s OK to hug her when she’s off the clock.

“It’s been hard for him . . . It’s been so hard for everyone,” she said.

Through it all, the sisters have leaned on each other for support while keeping an optimistic outlook.

“You have to think positive,” Espanol said.

Now that Hale South is no longer a warm unit and has transitioned back to telemetry and progressive care, she and Mamaclay can breathe a bit easier. Even so, they aren’t letting their guard down and encourage others to stay vigilant and be very wary of what they read online.

“Wear a mask, wash your hands and stay home,” Mamaclay advised. If you have questions or need information, she said, “Don’t go on social media. Ask someone who knows — ask a real nurse.”