“Our Eyes Hurt From the Things We Can’t Unsee”: Nurse Sheds Raw Insight into COVID Critical Care

eyes hurt

My eyes ached. You know that gritty, raw feeling, like you’ve been crying razor blades or something? That’s what it felt like. I made an extra effort to focus on the freeway lines that zoomed by as I drove towards my safe place. Home. That’s where I could forget my day, where I could escape, leaving the sadness and stress sitting in the seat of my car, ready to be picked up again in the morning.

I had told my coworker that afternoon that it felt like 10 pm. My eyes had been hurting then, at what surprisingly was only four o’clock. I had assumed it was because of the tears. Now that I think about it, though, it was probably just the weariness of what I had seen. Not just that day, but every day for months. It was like being witness to a horrible car crash, and being unable to extract the victims. Except the wreck never ended. You relived it every day. I realized my eyes hurt from watching that repeated carnage. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to unsee it.

There is a weight sitting heavy on the heart of healthcare right now. From a critical care point of view, it feels like the dreaded elephant on your chest. It’s this heaviness brought on by unspent grief, coupled with a frantic frustration over the things we cannot change. You see, COVID-19 has brought us something we’re not used to or comfortable with. Defeat. It’s beating us, pretty much every time.

The world, and certainly the United States, has experienced the unparalleled effects of this novel virus. We’ve all experienced the shutdown, the isolation, and the economic loss. What a large percentage of people, outside of the healthcare system, are not seeing is the wicked behavior of this disease. They don’t see the cruel nature by which it attacks, making certain that stories of survival are few and far between for those poor people who happen to fall into respiratory distress under its grip. Y’all, it just won’t let the people go.

Here it is in a nutshell. Because we’ve shut the hospital doors and won’t allow you in. Here is a window into COVID Critical Care.

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Death. Over and over. It does not matter what we do, or what we don’t do. It doesn’t matter if we follow every recommendation, give every medicine, and check every single box. Nine times out of ten, if you end up on a ventilator with COVID-19, you are not coming off until your heart stops. That is why my eyes hurt.

You can see your patient turn the corner, start looking better, wean down the oxygen from 100%, finally. You can say to the spouse something you try not to say lately, like, “I’m hopeful. Things are looking better. I’m very optimistic about this.”

You can say those things one week, a few weeks into the particular ordeal, and you can want to believe it in your heart so desperately, but then you can have your hand on that same spouse the following week, praying for comfort while they cry, holding them while they weep in grief because your hope just didn’t pan out. That is why our eyes ache. You cannot unsee some things. Some pain etches itself into your retinas.

Listen, we knew what we were getting into with nursing and medicine. We knew that death and dying occur. We’ve dealt with this our entire careers, some of us for twenty or thirty years. What we were not prepared for was constant death. See, in nursing you win some and you lose some. But you win some! Do you see where I’m going? We’re used to having some good news to throw into the mix, but this pandemic hasn’t been playing by the usual rules. It has its own book, and sadly that manual is still being written. As it stands now, and since this began, the odds are not in our favor. The real Hunger Games are worse than you ever saw on TV.

We are fighting, y’all. We are doing all the things we do so well. There are many times over the years that I’ve been part in successfully reviving and continuing the life of someone who probably should have been allowed to pass on to the hereafter. In those moments I have said, “we are too good at what we do.” Well, this year has upended that statement. This year, we can’t seem to be good enough. We can fight, and we can do all the great things we normally do, but nothing can seem to alter the poor outcomes of critically ill COVID-19 patients. It. Is. Killing. Us. All of us. It is breaking our hearts, but it hasn’t stopped, so we just keep fighting.

You can watch a patient you’ve personally fought for, die every shift, every day, and it’s draining. Sometimes it’s more, sometimes it’s less. I don’t know the numbers, but I know how it feels. It sucks. Where’s some good news?!

I can count the success stories, on one hand, and I’m so very grateful for them. But they’re not enough. The bad is still outweighing the good in intensive care. Even when you do have someone get wheeled out the door, they’re not the same. The effects of this continue, and we don’t even know to what extent yet. I’m not a negative or fearful person, but gosh, that’s scary. The significant and lasting damage to lung tissue is real, and it’s crazy. We won’t even talk about the other physical and emotional tolls.

Our eyes hurt from the things we cannot unsee, from the tears we sometimes cannot stop. Our hearts hurt for the grieving families, for the pain of our patients and their loved ones. Our brains ache from trying to understand the vast variations of presentation and progression of this virus, and our minds are blown by the damage it can do. This virus is cruel, it’s uncertain, and it’s unlike anything we have seen. We have worked beyond what we believed we were capable of doing. We have carried ourselves to physical points we have never experienced before, but also emotional roller coaster rides we never anticipated. So, while the Nation at large is angry to watch football and not be made to wear masks, we’re just over here trying to survive. We’re just over here trying to make our patients survive, even as we know that statistically they will not.

Brie Gowen
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Brie Gowen is a 30-something (sliding ever closer to 40-something) wife and mother. When she’s not loving on her hubby, chasing after the toddler or playing princess with her four-year-old, she enjoys cooking, reading and writing down her thoughts to share with others. Brie is also a huge lover of Jesus. She finds immense joy in the peace a relationship with her Savior provides, and she might just tell you about it sometime. She’d love for you to check out her blog at