COVID-19 nurses

COVID care nurses spend most of their shifts in layers of protective gear.

A week ago I had a two-hour conversation with a close relative of mine who is a full-time floor nurse at one of the largest and busiest hospitals in Worcester. We got together specifically to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic and what some of its consequences have been for the nurses who have been providing health care during the 21 months that the coronavirus has been sickening people.

Ann has been a registered nurse for three years. At age 33 now, she started nursing school later than some students, having worked a number of low-paying service jobs first. So she appreciates her professional job, its better pay, its union status, and its potentially unlimited and worthy career path.

She had trained to be a cardiac nurse. Her expectations therefore were that she’d be part of a team saving the lives of patients with a range of heart issues. After only a year on the job though, her cardiac care unit had to be shut down so that her entire floor could be converted to COVID-19 cases. Since the pandemic began, Ann has – like so many nurses – had to minister exclusively to COVID-19 patients.

That span – now nearly two years – has been a difficult ordeal that has taken, and is still taking, a significant toll on Ann and most other nurses. In the first few months of the pandemic, when sick people were filling the hospital wards, nurses and doctors were only learning what COVID-19 would do, and how it was transmitted. Ann told me of the extreme fear – nearly terror – that all the nurses had on entering the rooms of patients stricken with the virus.

They had no choice but to suppress that fear. Hour after hour, day after day, they had to don layers of protective gear, face masks, and shields – and change them for each new room entered – and brave the contaminated airspace of patients in negatively pressurized rooms.

The patients themselves were in unusual distress. In pain, on oxygen, and struggling to breathe, their very helplessness and isolation compounded the nurses’ trauma of caring for them. Patients died on Ann’s floor, or sometimes they would be transferred to the intensive care unit to be placed on respirators.

Throughout 2020 there was broad public support for and acknowledgement of the skills and selflessness of the nurses and doctors caring for COVID-19 patients. Once vaccinations became widely available in early 2021, however, the politicization of virus-related health care grew to shocking levels. Right-wing social media and large numbers of Republican politicians and citizens began a steady campaign to undermine vaccinations, mask-wearing, medical expertise, and the best practices of containing the pandemic.

Now, to add to the non-stop risks, exhaustion, anxiety and trauma that nurses had been experiencing for more than a year, society just flatly betrayed them. After surviving (literally) a pandemic year, and expecting the relief of a fully vaccinated public, nurses are today experiencing the cognitive dissonance, dis-integration, depression, psychic damage, and loneliness that occur as a result of a betrayal of what’s right.

As citizens – and even many sick patients – relentlessly question and resist vaccine and masking protocols, the very identities and beings of Ann and her fellow nurses are gradually undermined, undone, and shattered.

This may sound dramatic, but it’s no exaggeration. It’s the essence of what trauma does to a person.

Ann says that her job has been attacked. Everybody has an opinion. People find out that she is a nurse, and they all want to talk about the pandemic, vaccines, the politics. She cannot get away from it.

She no longer is interested in whether her COVID-sick patients were vaccinated. She is a professional who must care for all. and how many times can her mind and emotions safely process a denial of her expertise, her work, her actual self? She no longer volunteers for extra shifts, though they are available every single day. She is able to say no now, unlike last year. But she still feels the guilt, responsibility, distress, and impotence when she walks out of the hospital every night at midnight.

As America fights with itself about COVID-19, conditions in Ann’s hospital remain unusually stressful and anxiety-producing. There is constant flux, high patient turnover, and acute COVID-19 events to respond to. Every patient room that Ann enters requires her to change into fresh protective gear. When patients need physical assistance turning or rising, she often lifts them alone – to save other nurses from suiting up (again) and risking (again) exposure to the virus. She now feels pain in her back and body from this extra work.

When I met with Ann she had two lines on her face that were imprinted there from hours of wearing a tight-fitting mask. The lines were fine red chafes that had dented the skin on her face. Every day, constantly wearing closed gowns, masks, gloves, and shields, she sweats uncomfortably for the entire shift. Many nurses have developed rashes.

But it’s the mental toll that is bad for Ann. Sometimes emotionally wrung out, she has to take a sick day to regroup. On other days, it is only by going to work that she can keep the distractions at bay. COVID-19 has become her whole world.

Brian T. Watson of Swampscott is author of “Headed Into the Abyss: The Story of Our Time, and the Future We’ll Face.” Contact him at btwatson20@gmail.com.

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