I have been a critical care nurse for over 30 years. My education and
training had prepared me well for my career as a nurse. But no college
course, textbook, or amount of experience could have ever prepared me
for what I was about to encounter as I faced the new reality of being
a COVID nurse. I thought I was prepared to handle any health crisis,
but I quickly realized that I was not prepared for this.
I wasn’t prepared for the controlled chaos of my first day on the
COVID unit and the shifts that would follow. Unlike many, we were
fortunate to have adequate staff and appropriate PPE. We were lucky to
have doctors who were on the cutting edge of COVID research for a
treatment. But none of that could take away the anxiety and stress
that all of us were feeling. We knew that we were in unchartered
waters. This was nothing like any of us had ever experienced. But
through the heavy emotions and uncertainty, we felt unified and knew
that we would get through it together.
I wasn’t prepared for the “new normal” for nursing care. We were
told to bulk our treatments, medications, and assessments to limit our
exposure while in patient rooms. We communicated with our patients in
a deliberate manner, not the nurturing way we were accustomed to.
I wasn’t prepared for the fear I saw in the eyes of each of my
patients that were cursed with the COVID diagnosis. The patients with
dementia touched me the most – their fear was so consuming. I know I
must have looked like a monster in all my PPE and they had no idea why
they were closed in a room, all alone and not able to breathe.
I wasn’t prepared for the tears that would come when I held an
iPad so my patient’s family could say goodbye to their loved ones as
I, a perfect stranger, held their hand. These tears and overwhelming
amounts of guilt and sadness would resume hours and even days after
these moments had happened.
I wasn’t prepared for the fear and exhaustion I saw in my
colleagues’ eyes. The mental and physical fatigue was everywhere. I
was constantly questioning “How long could they keep this pace?” I
often felt guilty for not doing more, for not taking extra shifts, for
not being the relief that so many of my fellow nurses needed.
I wasn’t prepared for the silent drives home from work after each
shift or the knot in my stomach reminding me that I could potentially
be exposing my family to a deadly virus when I arrived. I trusted that
I was protected (knowing that I followed procedures for using and
removing PPE) but that didn’t take away the nagging fear in my heart
as I walked in the door after each of my shifts. The days that
followed each of those shifts were some of the most difficult, as I
waited to see if either of my daughters woke up with a fever or a dry
cough or began to show the same symptoms as the patients who I had
treated a few days prior. Thankfully they, nor I, ever did.
I wasn’t prepared for the healing power of a hot shower after a
shift on the COVID unit. It was like I was erasing all the anxiety,
fear, sadness and exhaustion from the day. For 25 minutes, I was free
from the haunting look on a patient’s face as they realized that they
weren’t going to beat the virus. I was free from their family’s
sorrow. I was free from constantly thinking about whether I put my PPE
on in the right order or if I washed my hands enough that day. For
those 25 minutes, I was free.
I wasn’t prepared for the overwhelming community support and
generosity. I live in a very gracious community who flooded the
hospital with food, PPE, cards and handwritten notes of appreciation.
The streets were lined with banners and signs in support of the health
care system. Restaurants that were barely surviving continued to
donate meals to feed the COVID units. Fire companies and police
departments from all over the county blared their sirens and put on
their lights as they drove through the parking lot of our hospital,
clapping and cheering on the front-line workers.
I wasn’t prepared for the pride I felt for my profession as I
watched dedicated nurses and doctors from all areas of the hospital
pull together to staff the COVID floors and testing areas. No one
questioned why they were being pulled to the chaos; they just accepted
their assignment with grace. I was reminded why I chose nursing and
why I fell in love it.
Lastly, and probably the most profound is that I wasn’t prepared
to watch colleagues across the world and the health care systems we
depended on crumble yet shine under the wrath of COVID-19. If you know
a health care worker, give them a hug – they need it. Their minds,
hearts and souls have been affected in ways not soon to be forgotten.
The COVID fight is not yet over but I know we are all more prepared
for what may come. Now, more than ever, I realize how lucky I am to be
a nurse and how proud I am that I was able to take action during the