“I’ve treated Coronavirus patients in the ICU since day one. It’s been a whirlwind. In the beginning, we had no idea what we were doing. We were short on supplies and knowledge and MacGyvered our way through, just figuring it out. We didn’t have the right equipment and couldn’t run a proper code. It was heartbreaking to watch our patients deteriorate, and there was nothing we could do about it. The first one of my COVID-19 patients who died was a nurse, and that almost broke me. I felt like a failure, and I walked out of that room and cried. And I am not a crier. It could have been me, or any one of us. After that, we started debriefing about what worked and what we could do better. A lot of brilliant minds are learning as we go.
By the time a COVID patient reaches us, they are already struggling to breathe. It’s as if they are drowning. We try to put off the intubation process as long as possible because it’s much harder for them to get off oxygen after that. We see patients gasping for air and freaking out. Some patients attack us because they can’t breathe and their brains are confused from the hypoxia. It’s horrific to watch. Sometimes patients scream, ‘I can’t breathe. Please, God, help me! Can I get the vaccine now?’
We have seen so much death and families falling apart, but sometimes all we can do is to keep them comfortable and help them through death. We sing hymns and hold the patient’s hand as he or she passes away. In the past year and a half, I’ve lost more than 80 patients to COVID. I keep a list of their first names in my journal. Saying their names, praying for their families, and remembering their stories keeps me going and keeps humanity at the forefront of my shift.
One of my patients lost his cell phone. He was on high-flow oxygen, and he was going to be intubated soon. We searched the entire unit for that cell phone and couldn’t find it. A co-worker and I put on our respirators and hazmat suits and went to the loading dock and called his phone. It rang in one of the dirty linen bins. It was so hot, but that phone was his connection to his family and community. I was determined to get it back. He was intubated the next day. Two weeks later he passed away. I will never regret going to find that phone.
It’s not just death, it’s the after-effects. My dad had COVID and was in the hospital for several days. He rehabilitated and went back home, but he is in stage three kidney failure from the virus. He also has migraines. Even if you survive, what quality of life might you lose?
Last year, fighting COVID was a call to action, like a Rosie the Riveter moment. Doctors and nurses were ready to take it on. We fought COVID for so long and finally felt like we were getting somewhere with the vaccine. Our numbers dropped and we turned COVID units back into regular hospital units. We returned to our regular care. But all of that progress was ripped away with the Delta variant, and it’s worse than before. We’re on E with no gas in the tank. We are exhausted, frustrated and angry because it didn’t have to be this way. But the moment we’re at a bedside, all of that goes away because we’re looking at a human. We treat everyone the same way, like it could be us.
There are no more easy days in the hospital. We are constantly on high alert with more and sicker patients per nurse, but we find ways to hold each other up. We bring breakfast and treats. We try to give each other quick breaks during days when there is no time to slow down. Doctors, nurse anesthetists, physical therapists and many other disciplines pitch in when we are understaffed. It’s been incredible to see the team work that this pandemic has built.
I graduated from college with degrees in international studies and foreign languages and literature. In 2009, I couldn’t find a job in my field during the recession so I continued in cosmetic retail management. I needed to make a change and wanted to help people, so I went to nursing school. I still remember sitting in La Cocina, with my best friend April, trying to choose between teaching and nursing. I had no idea that this would be the most challenging and most rewarding choice of my life. I am currently in a doctoral program to become a certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA). I thrive in the academic environment and want to give back to my profession by teaching other nurses.
I keep a little love Buddha in my pocket as a daily reminder to do all things with love and kindness. Having him with me during COVID keeps me grounded in who I am and what I bring to my patients every day. It keeps me human.”