I took a survey from my employer today, and as I went through the questions I was surprised by how easily I could answer one way or another. It was a survey for how the pandemic, COVID-19 was affecting us, and as I clicked each bubble I understood even more just how much things had changed. One question that stood out to me asked if I thought about work more when at home. The fact was I had always been proud of my ability to leave work at work. I am an extremely compassionate person, but after twenty years in healthcare I had learned that to keep my sanity intact, patient care needed to stay at the bedside. It would be there waiting when I returned. But today, as I pondered the question on the survey, I realized that had changed. Everything had changed.
It had really started to hit me, the weight of it all, a few nights ago. I sat in bed the night before work and I prayed. I felt so down, and the fact was I had for weeks. There was nothing wrong going on in my life. I wasn’t financially stressed. My marriage was amazing, my children healthy and adorable. I had absolutely nothing to be upset about, yet I was. The only out of place factor I could pinpoint? COVID-19.
Years ago I had come to a place in my nursing career where I absolutely loved my job. I considered patient care to be a privilege, and even on tough days I considered it a wonderful vocation. It was a calling, and I carried the task with a smile. This past week I noticed an unwelcome feeling coming over me. It was a feeling I hadn’t experienced in many years. It was dread. I was dreading the return to the critical care bedside. How could I dread something I loved so much? I cried out to God to bring back my joy for the field.
When I sat in bed praying to feel better I realized that all this was hitting me harder than I thought. I realized that even though I thought I was doing ok, I really wasn’t. Even though I thought I could handle stress well, I don’t guess I had ever experienced stress like this.
Typically, nursing is about healing. A patient comes in sick, and we make them better. That’s not COVID-19.
And yes, I had experienced lots of death and dying. It was part of the job. So it wasn’t the people dying that got me. It was the fact that most of them seemed to be dying. The ones that were in Critical Care, anyway. The prognosis of these people was horrible, and when you have to break that to a daughter who can’t talk to her mom, or even see her, it’s depressing.
I was used to elderly and debilitated patients dying, but this was different. I was seeing people my age, younger, or just a few years older, and they were not doing well at all.
Nursing had always been a career where I had to be careful with infectious disease. I frequently encountered illnesses I could pick up and take home if I didn’t use proper protection or hygiene, but this was different. It was so new, and I watched the information available change day by day. One minute it’s airborne, the next droplet. One day the CDC says one thing, the next day, something else. The suggested PPE (personal protective equipment) changed faster than I could keep up, and it became this constantly evolving situation. I sadly knew that each time I came to work things would be different than when I left.
Do I need to shower and change clothes at work? Is it in my hair? The questions I had to ask myself. Is a Level 1 mask good enough, or is a Level 3 safer? Wait, now you’re saying it’s aerosolized and I should definitely wear googles? Why didn’t anyone tell me that yesterday?
Am I bringing bad stuff home to my children? They’re so little still. The fact that our government and healthcare system was treating the response to this unlike anything I had ever encountered only added to my thoughts. I mean, your president says everyone needs to stay home. Except you. You need to run into it head on! Unless your patient’s heart stops. Then, don’t run; put on your PPE first. It was going against everything we had ever done as lifesavers!
Everyone was watching us. People whose sole job was to make sure we were protecting ourselves properly. And while I appreciated the effort, it also made you feel pretty odd. I mean, what kind of crazy crap makes hoards of upper management and administration watch your every move? What exactly were we dealing with? The answer to that seemed to change every day!
I never felt so helpless. Everything we tried seemed to be in vain. They typically weren’t getting better. One week this was the go-to drug of choice, the next week something else, and the next week the surprising news that none of it would improve outcomes. In fact, it might make it worse.
It didn’t matter that the mask or respirator hurt my face, left bruises and sores, or that it left me feeling drowsy and cloudy headed after so many hours on straight. It didn’t change the fact that I was paranoid about the seal, worried that the tiny virus could somehow get through.
The stress made me become the type of person I didn’t want to be, short tempered and easily frustrated. The high acuity of the severely critical patients forced me to become the kind of nurse I didn’t want to be, hurried, harried, just struggling to keep them alive, keep my head above the water. My shift would end and I’d be sure I had missed something, which drove me crazy, but at least they had lived through my shift. They would likely die after I left. The prognosis was always poor.
Seeing the fear in their eyes, or hearing the words, “am I going to die,” remembering those words after they were gone. Holding their hand, offering comforting, muffled words, but knowing you were no adequate substitute for their loved ones.
Speaking of loved ones. We had those too, and just this week my nine year old said sadly, “Mom, I don’t want you to go to work. I’m worried you’ll get sick.”
But then I also had loved ones who had no idea. As I was leaving work today it occurred to me that not many of my family members had called to check on me. It wasn’t their fault; they didn’t know. I had not told them the toll this pandemic was having on me, and that’s when I knew I needed to. I see Facebook posts of people who don’t even think the pandemic is real, or that it’s like the flu. They have the privilege of not knowing how hard this is hitting me and my coworkers. I don’t normally try to play a pity party or seek attention, but I realized that a lot of people just didn’t know. They didn’t know that we’re not ok.
I have spoken with my coworkers and peers, and all the ones I have questioned are feeling the same pressing weight as me. They’re tired, worn thin, worried, beyond the typical stress of saving lives on a daily basis. It’s beyond skipping lunch and bathroom breaks to keep someone from dying. That’s just a regular Thursday. This, this is different. This is harder.
I don’t know the answers, and I don’t know if things will ever be the same. I don’t know if there’s anything you can do to make it better for your nursing friends. You can pray. You can send us a message, drop off some toilet paper, or even just a long-distance hug. We need so many hugs right now, and social distancing is messing that all up. The typical outlets aren’t available to decompress, or the ways we deal with stress are not allowed. Nurses have the added weight of homeschooling, when that’s not something they are used to, or a spouse out of work. We’re dealing with all the same stress and aggravation as the rest of the population, but also the additional stress of facing this monster up close and personal.
We can’t pretend it’s not happening or busy ourselves with conspiracy theories. We’re too preoccupied with telling ourselves, “it’s not your fault. You did everything you could do.”
This is all I can write right now. There’s more, so much more, but I am exhausted after a day of the above. I need to lay down so I can wake up and do it again. See, that’s the great thing about nurses. We are not ok, but you’ll still find us when you need us. We’ll be in the clinics, ER’s, and units ready to do all we can do for those who need us. We’ll worry about us later.