Ohio State nurse represents America’s health care workers at State of the Union address

Ohio State nurse Refynd Duro in the White House

Refynd Duro, RN, normally spends her nights clad in navy scrubs working in The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s progressive care unit, where she attends to a wide range of patients.

Their conditions can be anything and everything, ranging from kidney disease to sepsis or surgery recovery to oncology. At the height of the pandemic, the unit was transformed into a COVID-19 care unit where patients on ventilators were given breathing assistance, using high concentrations of oxygen.

But on Tuesday night, Duro donned pearls and a white blouse paired with dark slacks and sat in First Lady Jill Biden’s viewing box in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol. She was one of eight Americans invited as a guest for President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address.

“I was honored and privileged to be there. It’s just a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’m still thinking: Why me? I’m just a nurse in Ohio,” Duro says.

Of these eight hand-picked guests, a White House press release explains, “Each of these individuals, with their resilience, innovation, service, and courage, were chosen by the White House because they represent policies or themes to be addressed by the President in his speech.”

While the president did not single out Duro, she was shown on camera as a guest. Attendees were not masked during the address, but had to be tested to attend.

The president spoke about next steps in the pandemic. Duro was proud to represent frontline workers.

“I wanted our voices to be heard, and I wanted to be there to represent the nurses — not just the nurses, but health care workers and respiratory therapists. They’re not getting the recognition that they deserve,” Duro says.

In the progressive care unit, nurses closely monitor patients for small signs that could lead to a worsening condition and require a move to the intensive care unit. It requires long hours and lots of attention to detail.

“Who’s going to take care of them but us? Who’s going be there at their bedside but nurses? Who’s going to be there holding their hands while they’re taking their last breath? We are. I get emotional talking about it,” Duro says.

On this national stage, she represented nurses, doctors and medical staff across the country who work long hours and make sacrifices during a pandemic prolonged due to mutations and misinformation.

But there’s hope that the pandemic is waning.

“We’re still in this. It’s not 100% gone. But I’m very, very hopeful,” Duro says. “I know springtime is coming and the sun is coming out. I feel like it’s going to be different from last year.”

She was invited to attend through her involvement in the Ohio Nurses Association. She’s spent her 19-year nursing career advocating for bedside nurses and patient safety.

“I think she’s a great representative. She’s kind of the epitome of the experience of a health care professional,” says Brian Williams, a nurse manager on the progressive care unit. “She’s got a young child who she’s stressing about taking care of and making sure that she didn’t get COVID-19 herself and then pass it along to her loved ones. Particularly in the beginning, no one knew what that meant.”

Collage of three photos of the Ohio State nurse Refynd Duro in the White House and with her son
Refynd Duro, RN, at the White House and outside the U.S. Capitol for the State of the Union address. Pictured at right is Duro with her four-year-old son.

Early in the pandemic, Duro had to quarantine herself from her four-year-old son to protect him from contracting the virus so she could still go to work and care for patients. She’s one of 45 nurses in the progressive care unit who attend to up to 24 patients each day who come from as many as 15 different services.

“She’s had to live that experience. The hard choices that health care workers have to make, taking care of patients with a not well-known disease and all the challenges that came with it. There’s a lot of fear in that,” Williams says.

The White House specifically wanted to invite an Asian American nurse to attend the address. Hate crimes against Asian Americans have increased since the beginning of the pandemic when the virus was first detected in China. Asian Americans of various ethnicities have had to battle more racism since then.

“It’s a huge political statement. In the beginning of the pandemic, I felt like I had to prove myself as an Asian American nurse. I never really thought of that until the pandemic,” Duro says. “It really affected me and I just had to be myself and be the nurse that I am. And then after an hour or two, patients are like, ‘Oh, okay, she’s here to make me feel better. She’s here because she cares.’”

Duro’s birthday was Sunday and two other invited guests had birthdays on Monday. The White House staff and the First Lady sang “Happy Birthday” to celebrate with them. Duro was also allowed to bring one guest with her, so she invited her best friend who’s a nurse at Mount Carmel in labor and delivery.

“I wanted someone to share this moment with me, someone who I grew up with and who shares the same profession. We share the same beliefs and the same political opinion,” she says.

Duro came home on Wednesday afternoon feeling hopeful. Just a night earlier, she watched as politicians across both sides of the aisle stood and clapped.

“There are moments where they all unite and agree on certain issues, and I’m so happy about that,” she says. “Unity was the president’s final words. We should just come together. We have political differences. I feel like, as a country, we need to just support each other. The pandemic itself is hard enough. Why fight against each other? We’re all Americans.”

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