A Nurse’s Notes on the Front Lines
I didn’t sign up for this, I thought.
I was standing at the nurse’s station. I had just learned that I was expected to care for multiple nursing home residents whose COVID-19 swabs were pending. Anyone who was positive had been moved to another unit.
I had been a nurse for ten years, but never during a worldwide disaster. Everyone on the unit was wearing personal protective equipment, or PPE, consisting of a mask and a yellow gown. I saw a nurse wearing an N95 mask, and was relieved that it was available, until she told me she brought it from home. I’d have to make do with a surgical mask.
I was hesitant to accept the assignment, but I was as ready as I would ever be. My hands knew how to don and doff gear; I knew what signs to look out for in my patients, such as a fever, shortness of breath, or dropping oxygen level. We were fully staffed. My only fear was telling my family I might have been exposed to COVID-19. I kept my stress bottled in.
Worried family members of residents couldn’t visit, so they called. Frequently. Sometimes we would get off the phone with someone, and they’d call right back. Sometimes, they would ask us to wheel their loved one to a window, so they could walk up and wave. It was the least I could do.
The residents had to stay in their rooms. Activities were canceled, so all residents could really do were work on puzzles, watch TV, and call family members. As I gave each one their medicine or changed a dressing, I tried to spend a few minutes with each person to relieve their loneliness. But there was never enough time.
Leaving patients in their rooms has its dangers. A lot of residents have memory loss, and after a meal, they usually watch a movie by the nurse’s station, where I can keep an eye on them as I pour medications. Many of them will let me know that they need to use the bathroom, or that they’re tired and ready for bed, if they see me. Then I can take them or alert a CNA that they need assistance.
But in their spacious rooms, many don’t know how to work their call lights, and may fall. I’m always walking by, checking everyone, but I can’t be everywhere at once.
After five hours on my feet, I ate my lunch. My sandwich and yogurt were nestled in an insulated bag with a freeze pack. I couldn’t leave the unit to go to the break room, so I ate in the residents’ empty dining room.
Once back at my station, a medical condition arose. The patient ended up fine, but with the incident came a flurry of paperwork. I turned around to ask the charge nurse a question, only to see that she was crying. The stress of trying to make a schedule after multiple staff called out, while dealing with a constantly ringing phone and callers yelling at her, had gotten to her. I consoled her, and then asked another nurse for help.
After what seemed like a lifetime, the nurse for the next shift came, and I was ready to go home. Someone advised me to save my flimsy yellow gown, as I’d need to wear it the next shift. Instead, I tossed it, saying I’d bring in a lab coat.
Once I got to my car, I felt like I’d walked out of a war zone. I felt more exhausted than I had in years.
When I got home, I took my shoes off before I walked into the house, headed straight to the shower, and dumped my clothes in a hamper. My lunch bag went into a closet, to wait for the germs to die.
I settled in and watched the news, of area nursing homes with dozens of COVID-19 deaths. That could be us soon, I thought, with a sinking heart.
I wondered why more wasn’t being done. Even just a volunteer to help us answer the phone would be a godsend. And soon we would need more help — much more.
Even at home, I couldn’t escape my phone. It rang with calls to pick up extra shifts. I couldn’t bear the thought of going through it all over again.
I let it ring.