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#5 Nursing in a pandemic
You guessed it, it's HARD!
I’m sorry I’m late (ha! Meta!). Very late, 3 days if you’re counting. But I was sick!
Writhe-y and wincey and sweaty - really sick.
I blearily attempted a bunch of different versions of a post this week, but I’ve been so downed by sickness and THE sickness of my city and an EARTHQUAKE that everything I typed felt trivial. And I didn’t feel funny or creative enough to provide a worthy diversion.
Ever since I started this newsletter, I’ve wanted other people to write for it too. I like the idea of seeing things a different way. I definitely don’t want this to be all me, all the time.
This week felt like a perfect week to try that, especially with this person.
Olivia is an ICU nurse and a really bloody good writer. Here, she writes about what it’s like to work in an ICU COVID ward. For those of us who work at home, in pyjamas, with a cup of tea in hand (or depending on the time, a cool climate shiraz), it’s a sobering reality and one worth reading.
At 5.30am my phone pings with a message, you’re working in COVID today. That’s the COVID ICU ward, where we care for critically ill COVID patients.
My heart starts to race. Not again.
I close my eyes and press my forehead. I was in there only yesterday. My face is still sore from my mask; the purple welt across the bridge of my nose is still throbbing. I don’t want to spend another 12 hours in all that PPE.
I arrive at work and get changed into scrubs. I change my shoes just in case I bring sickness home to my two babies. I’ve decided to leave a pair at work to lower the risk for my family.
Hand hygiene. Gown on. Hand hygiene. Mask on. I wince. Fuck, it’s so tight. That bruise on my nose is killing me. Hair net on. Face shield on. Hand hygiene. Gloves on.
I breathe and the shield mists over, there’s a leak in my mask. I can’t see properly.
I already feel claustrophobic and it’s only been a few minutes. How do I survive 12 hours in this again? It’s okay, you can do this, I whisper to myself.
Ok, time for work. My god It’s hot in here. It’s not long before I’m soaked with sweat under layers of PPE. At next break I’ll have to change my scrubs.
We need to intubate a patient. Damn. I guess the scrubs will have to wait.
We work on the patient for almost an hour. I’m so hot, so trapped in all my layers of plastic, that I think I’m going to pass out.
The doctor is trying to put in an arterial line. He’s looking through a face shield that is so foggy that beads of condensation are dripping from the shield. He can barely see as he inserts a cannula into a main artery. Got it. Thank god. We rush off to change our sweat-soaked scrubs.
In one 12 hour shift I could change in and out of PPE 10 times. Don on, work. Doff off, break. Don on, work. Uh, I need to pee. Doff off. Don on, work. Doff off, break. Don on, work. Doff off, break. Don on, work. Doff off - shower & home time. I’ve got to be quick, there’s only one shower. I need to shower before I get in the car. Then I’ll shower once more at home before I kiss my babies.
It’s my family I worry about the most.
At home, I stare at my face in the bathroom mirror. There are red marks everywhere. My face is burning. Angry acne blooms across my chin, memories of being a teen. I touch the deep welt on my nose and tears prick my eyes.
I’m done, I can’t do this again tomorrow. But I will. We’re already short staffed. I can’t call in sick, I’d be letting the team down.
The next morning at 5:45am I wake up to my alarm instead of a text. That must mean no COVID ICU today. Sweet relief.
At 6:01am as I’m sipping my coffee in the kitchen my phone lights up, sorry for the late text, you’re working in COVID today.
Heart it races. Here we go again.
I once held a woman’s hand as she died because her family were too frightened to see her that way. I couldn’t let her die alone. I promised them I’d sit by her side as long as it took. I wept as I watched her taking her last breath. Not because death was new to me, but because the thought of her dying alone was unbearable.
Let that word sink in.
Alone, is what every one of our patient’s is facing now.
In pain. Alone.
A new cancer diagnosis. Alone.
A major surgery. Alone.
The news that there is nothing more the doctors can do for you. Alone.
We FaceTime our patient’s families these days. I apologise over the phone to yet another family member who cries because they can’t see their loved one.
I feel their frustration.
I cry too.
I get angry too.
“I’m so sorry”, I say.
Luckily, even in these times, there are some circumstances in which we can allow visitors. These circumstances include; when someone is unlikely to recover and when someone is imminently dying. How lucky.
You can come and visit your family member now, that you haven’t seen in 3 weeks, because they are dying.
That 3 weeks that you didn’t have with them because of a pandemic? You can’t get it back.
Tomorrow you might have to say goodbye.
Again, I’m so sorry.
I love my job as an ICU Nurse. Like, really really love it. Nursing is what I was born to do. It’s what I’ve always done.
Of course it’s a tough job, you see people die, you see people at their most sick, their most scared. Despite that, or maybe because of that, I love it. It’s a privilege.
But I liked it a lot more when we weren’t in a pandemic.
These days I’ve been fit tested for a perfect mask (or 3) and now my nose doesn’t bruise or bleed. It’s tight, it’s uncomfortable, my skin hates it but I’m safe. I’ve been vaccinated. I’ve got all that sweaty PPE to protect me. I’m thankful for these things.
And despite being bone tired, I’m ready for anything that this pandemic can throw at me, at us.
That’s my job.