Community Reflection #6
My COVID Experience
February 4, 2020. We were on our way to Yellowstone National Park, a long planned and eagerly anticipated vacation. Everyone thought we were a little crazy to go to such a cold place. Most people head to the tropics during the winter to escape the cold and snow. I, however, was looking forward to seeing the bison with their manes full of snow and ice!
We flew out of Syracuse and had a layover in Chicago. That was the first sign that things were out of the norm. We saw several Asian travelers wearing facemasks. When we watch the news, it’s not unusual to see people in other countries wearing masks. That is their norm, but here? I remember thinking I wanted to distance myself from them.
So much has happened since then.
I am a RN at one of the local hospitals. I was an emergency room nurse for 13 years, but left that department 2 years ago, to work as a cath/ep nurse educator. Which means I educate patients who are about to have a cardiac catheterization, or cardiac electrophysiology procedure (pacemaker etc). The office is busy, but certainly much less stressful than the ER.
Sometime in March, things started to happen. People here were wearing masks. We were told to keep our distance. Places were closing. At the hospital, we were preparing for the worst. Instructions were given on proper PPE donning and doffing, and rooms were being readied for the “surge”. Unlike the ebola outbreak, which we were trained for in the ED, this was close to home. It was unnerving and scary.
First, just the cafeteria was closed to visitors, then, the entire hospital. It was very difficult to tell your patients that they had to go through their procedure alone. They understood, but they were frightened, not just of being alone, but of being in a place where they knew the virus was. Doctors are required to review each case for necessity, and postpone those that are not essential. Few cases are non-essential when it comes to your heart. But many patients postponed their own procedures, out of fear.
The halls at the hospital are eerily quiet. Some entire units are vacant, in anticipation for the surge, or by the canceling of non-essential procedures, like orthopedics and the OR. All of these areas affect many workers.
There is a respiratory triage tent set up outside our ED now.
There are several COVID patients in our ICU. There are more pending results. Every day our CEO records a message on how things are going AND changing every day. It is surreal. We walk around in a half daze, donning our masks, gelling and washing our hands every 5 seconds. Getting paranoid. Nurses are working in different areas then they are used to or trained for. It is very difficult to work in an area you are unfamiliar with. We recently changed computer systems, so most of us do not know how to chart on different units. I tell my co-workers that if the surge comes, we won’t have much time to chart anyway. I laugh, saying that it will be like working in the ER again! We are all nervous.
I change into and out of my scrubs at work now. And change again when I get home. I have a designated spot for my shoes that I wear only back and forth to the hospital. I have a separate pair that I wear in the hospital. I wash up. I am sure those with constant patient contact are showering right when they get home. I consider everything I touch to be contaminated. I strategically plan my escape route, knowing where every hand sanitizer is located and where will be my last stop and gel before discarding my facemask. I hold my hands out away from by body, in an unconscious way of trying to keep clean.
Thankfully, we did not get the surge at our hospital. But we are still in the thick of things, unsure of what will happen when things start opening up again. Will the surge come then?
At home, my husband and I are doing our best. Gratefully he retired from teaching at the middle school last year. I can’t imagine him trying to teach online!
We do our shopping by either pick up or delivery and wipe things down when we bring them into the house. We haven’t seen the inside of a store in over 6 weeks. Luckily we live in a great, close-knit neighborhood. We look out for each other. The kids next door made me cards and a tee shirt that has a stethoscope in the shape of a heart with the word “hero” written on it. Others hand us baked goods through fences and shout good will from across the street. Many have thanked me for doing what I do. I am grateful and embarrassed. I don’t feel like a hero, at all. We stopped watching most of the news. It is too intense. Everyone is watching series and movies on TV. Exchanging titles when they find a good one. We do a lot of jigsaw puzzles, play scrabble, backgammon, and parcheesi. We walk the dog together, something we didn’t do before. That’s nice. But even walking outside on the street is different. When you see someone coming, you move to the other side of the street or move out into the road. I look around and feel like there is a blanket over us. Of what, I don’t know.
Yesterday I received a certified letter in the mail telling me of my lay-off. I have the option to bump someone of lower seniority out of their job if I want. But I don’t.
Even the mail and signing for things is different. The postman said he would sign for me, if that was ok, he just needed to ask. I told him I knew it was my lay-off notice. He felt bad. The irony is that I am a nurse in a pandemic and am getting laid off. I feel bad for the non-essential workers. They have been out of work for a long time already. I can’t imagine how they are struggling. And I think of all the people on the frontlines in the big cities. How do you cope? I feel terrible that I am here, safe, and they are suffering. Part of me thinks I should be there helping them. But another part of me thinks that is crazy, then I feel even more terrible. That’s why it is embarrassing to be called a hero. Because I am not. I have the privilege of sitting in my comfortable living room, doing my jigsaw puzzle, watching TV, and not have to worry about getting up and going to work in the morning.
Like everyone else, I too, am anxiously waiting to hear the end to this story.