We have several healthcare professionals in our family: several nurses, a doctor of physical therapy, a physician assistant or PA, etc. My own mama became a nurse after daddy died, something I think she had wanted to do for a long time prior. When one of our nieces graduated with her nursing degree, I gave her mama’s nursing pin. Mama, who had just died the year prior, was always trying to talk others into pursuing nursing. A profession that enabled her to provide for her family and left her with endless stories to tell.
Throughout much of her early nursing career Mama worked in the ICU. The majority of her patients were heart attack and stroke victims. We could almost always tell when she had lost a patient because she would come home more exhausted than usual. She would smoke more that day. Drink more black coffee than normal. She would be irritable, curt with any questions we might have, less likely to put up with what she called “your nonsense”, which for a teenager can just be breathing.
I never could understand how a woman who had lost so much, for whom grief was a daily shadow, could work in intensive care. Why not a happier place, like delivering babies? I think now Mama used ICU as a place to channel her own grief. Who better to know the trauma of losing somebody than someone who has lived through it? And every time she helped save a life, she probably felt like she was bringing Daddy back from the dead in some small way – somebody’s daddy, somebody’s son.
Mama gave to nursing a lot of the emotions she denied herself at home. It’s that way for a lot of nurses I know. Really anyone who works in trauma situations. I can’t tell you how many times I sat behind the steering wheel of my car and wept bitterly after covering some tragedy – car wrecks, murders, sex abuse, etc. Crying in the car was my go-to relief. I had learned well, watching Mama, how to buck up and carry on.
Buck up and carry on is exactly what the American public has been demanding of all our healthcare workers over this past year. We might as well stand outside our local ERs holding signs saying “Get over yourselves.” Because that’s exactly the message the American public continually communicates to our healthcare providers through our behaviors.
Oh. Sure. We pretend otherwise. We tell other people we think nurses and doctors are “heroes.” Trump said it himself after his “bout” with Covid: “I want to begin by thanking all of the incredible medical professionals, doctors, nurses, everybody at Walter Reed Medical Center. I think it’s the finest in the world. The incredible job they’ve been doing.”
He didn’t mention that he had insisted they all sign non-disclosure forms and risk being sued or losing their jobs if they gave out any information contrary to the messaging he sought to give. And what was that messaging? Riding around like a bloated aging dictator waving at his loyalists, then ripping off his mask from the balcony of the White House like some B-grade movie rendition of a Castro-wannabe.
If actions do indeed speak louder than words, Trump’s actions were a big bugger off to all those medical care providers at Walter Reed: “Thanks” for getting me better but “FU” and your advice on Covid. We are Americans. We live free and die free.
Isn’t that right Kristi Noem?
I heard from a nurse in the field this week. She reached out to me because she is beyond exhausted. Can you help? she asked. Can you help people understand what we are going through out here?
I told her I would try.
Just last night a FNG (military lingo for Funny New Gal, or something to that effect) was working the Covid floor at an Oregon hospital. This nurse earned her wings in June and her licensure in July. This is her first job. Pause right here and consider that the person caring for you or your loved one should you get Covid may be a person who has only been on the job six or seven weeks. Not saying that a FNG won’t try and do a good job but when I’m hospitalized I want the nurse with a bit of confidence and experience, don’t you?
Anyway, the Covid patient was having a rough go of it. Covid influx at this particular hospital has increased greatly over the past few weeks. Here in Deschutes County alone we have seen our numbers tripling every few days, like much of the country. This nurse was in full PPE, mask, helmet, gloves, gown, etc. I got my first look at the gear medical professionals have to wear in isolation rooms back in March when I fell ill. The nurse attending me moved about like a Lego figurine. Everything she did from taking my temp to checking my respiration was as labor intensive as an astronaut aboard a space shuttle. It is slow, laborious work to move about in all that gear.
After two hours at her patient’s bedside last night, this nurse began to get sick herself. She was sweating profusely. She felt weak, a bit dizzy. Was she coming down with something herself? Her patient was still struggling. She couldn’t just leave them. But what would happen if she passed out? Then the staff would have two people to care for in the isolation room. Realizing that she herself was under some physical duress she asked to be tagged out of the room.
She took a break. Ate something. Went to the bathroom. Pause here for a moment and think about how difficult it is for a medical care provider to even get to the bathroom when one is having to gear up to care for every Covid patient. It is not like you can wear your gear from one Covid patient to the next. It’s a process just to pee. She looked herself in the mirror. Wept in the privacy of the bathroom for a moment. Splashed cold water on her face. Gave herself a pep talk. Checked her own pulse. Did a few deep breathing exercises she’d learned in yoga classes. And break over, put on her best face and returned to gear up once again and returned to her patient. By the time her shift ended this morning, she was sitting behind the steering wheel of her car weeping and asking herself if she had made a mistake choosing nursing as a career.
Nobody wants a job that will kill them. Yet, every medical professional working with Covid patients right now realizes that they are at risk. It weighs on them. It haunts them in their sleep and in their waking moments. Some have moved out of their homes to keep from possibly infecting their families. Some haven’t kissed their kids in ten months. Some haven’t seen their parents since February. Most will be working this Thanksgiving holiday.
Yet, despite their pleas to the public, all woke today to news that Sky Harbor airport in Phoenix was packed. People traveling somewhere for the holidays.
The general public’s big “Fuck You” to medical providers the nation over risking their lives and mental health caring for Covid patients.
But don’t take my word for it. Listen to what one medical professional reported to me:
“We are exhausted. Near the brink is more like it. We currently are running on fumes and then what keeps happening is we keep getting kicked while we are down: patients yell at us because their meds are 20 minutes late; or families holler at us for not calling them back right away for an update.
People need to understand nurses are the eyes and ears for their loved ones. Nurses are sometimes the only person holding the hand of the dying patient because their family either can’t come or refuse to come. Yet, we get no grieving time. We have to move on to the next patient.
The worst is when a patient looks you in the face and tells you that COVID is a hoax, then a few days later they end up on a ventilator near death. Covid is not about politics. It’s a Mother Fucking Pandemic! Over 250,000 dead!
When this first began nurses were treated with a modicum of respect. We got cute little “Heroes work here” signs which really meant nothing, still it was something. Oh course, I would love Hazard Pay as I am risking my life and my family’s life everyday. But, ultimately, nursing isn’t about the money; it is about caring for others.
The latest figures I have seen is more than 1,700 nurses so far have lost their lives to COVID. That would easily staff multiple hospitals. You should see how many hospitals are desperately trying to find nurses right now. Traveling nurses are in great demand. This entire year has sucked, but the past few months have been especially difficult and, truthfully, even if I could easily go somewhere for the holidays, I am too damn tired, too.
It is only getting worse.
The next step is beds in tents outside in freezing temperatures with heaters blasting. I sure hope it doesn’t get there but it the outlook is grim.
How can you help? If you know a nurse, if your neighbor is a nurse, or if you have an extra card lying around, write that nurse or healthcare worker, or teacher for that matter, a card saying, “Thank you, I’m thinking about you.” Or wave at them when you see them next and tell them how much you appreciate them. Just one small thing. Of course, a coffee gift card dropped off on the porch is always welcome as nurses run on coffee and don’t get to even have a bathroom break sometimes for over 12 hours.
The biggest thing is kindness and grace. It is the only thing that will remotely help nurses to keep fighting for another day. And absolutely whatever you do, don’t kick a nurse while they are down. If you have something nasty to say keep it to yourself or yell it in the backyard, but don’t you dare be mean to nurses.”
Okay, friends, how about instead of sitting around counting our blessings, we take this opportunity to thank a healthcare worker this week. Write a card. Send them a gift card if you are able. Don’t just think about them. Don’t just pray for them. Do that but do more than that. Stay home. Follow the guidelines. And find a way to do something kind for the nurses and healthcare providers in your community.
And yes, I sent this nurse a Starbucks card already.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Christian Bend: A Novel (Mercer University Press).