I’m usually good with words. The last year and a half of being a “front line nurse” has left me struggling to find the words. The frustration, anger, trauma, and sadness have so muddied my mind that I find it hard to sort through all of the complexities and put a name to them.
A patient told me the other day, “I know at least 60 people who have had COVID, and not one of them had to go to the hospital.” I felt an immediate overwhelming sense of sadness. My mind brought me back to a moment in 2020 that I’ll never forget. The memory is so branded on my brain that in an instant, I was standing in the room of the first patient I had ever cared for in 13 years that died all alone.
Her name was Susan. She came into the emergency department critically ill while we were on strict “no visitors” operations. The ED was overwhelmed with patients. We were buried in the workload of caring for COVID patients and all the other emergency patients presenting to our doors. The ambulances wouldn’t stop coming. Susan’s family member, who was appointed her decision-maker, said she wouldn’t want extensive invasive procedures at the end of life and asked that we arrange to send her back home on hospice care. We knew she was going to die soon. During the process of arranging her transfer home on hospice, she died.
My mind struggles to settle that fact. In my frantic rush to care for so many sick patients all at once, Susan died alone. No one held her hand or spoke words of comfort to her as she breathed her last. When I entered her room to find her deceased, my eyes welled up with tears, and I placed my hand on her forehead gently and said her name. My heart broke that she had passed without her loved ones present. I felt that I had failed her as a nurse, not being there to stand in their place. I have stayed hours after my shift to fight for my patients’ right to die with dignity over my 14 years of nursing. I had never failed a patient before in that right. But I most certainly failed Susan that day. I will remember her forever.
When people callously talk about social media COVID-conspiracy theories and their “rights violations” when told they must wear a mask, the anger and sadness in my heart get me tangled up in knots. I feel so angry I want to lash out. At the same time, the weight of all the death and tragedy I’ve witnessed through COVID feels so heavy that I usually say very little. My mind strays, and I think of the moments I’ve shared with coworkers where we were pushed beyond our limit and leaned into each other for support. I think of the wives, husbands, daughters, significant others who I spoke to on the phone while their loved ones passed away in my care.
“No, I’m so sorry. You can’t visit. No exceptions,” I would have to say. Hanging up those calls, I couldn’t help but think how much nursing had changed. In those moments, I hated nursing. I chose nursing and fell in love with it because of the opportunity to minister to the sick. The daily opportunity to speak words of comfort or encouragement, hold a lonely hand, share a smile with someone who is scared and alone, support family members and loved ones in their grief, to listen to someone’s story with an open heart, and to apply all my knowledge and skill to save a life.
Instead, I felt like I was watching people die while I stood by, helpless to change the outcome. Instead, I felt like I was deepening the trauma for the loved ones who wanted to say goodbye. When people try to downplay the severity of the COVID pandemic, I think of the many lives I’ve seen scarred by COVID, and I wonder how many lives have to be lost? What is the number that would impress you? 6 million? 10 million? Are you waiting for one of your cherished and irreplaceable loved ones to be in the death count?
If only the public would listen to those of us who are walking the long hospital hallways, donning PPE, and providing care for COVID patients. Why won’t they? I can’t answer that. If only the health care professions could all apply the concepts of evidence-based practice to the COVID vaccine as we do in our day-to-day professional lives.
Why can’t we do this? I can’t answer that. The public isn’t interested in our thoughts or the real stories of the souls entrusted to our care who have suffered so greatly. For them, it’s about elections and politics, sensational blog posts, conspiracy theories, and anecdotal evidence. How do we explain the unexplainable? Are there words for the things we’ve experienced? If there were words to illustrate my journey, I am quite convinced no one would be interested. Those who have lived the reality with me, my emergency nurse, ICU nurse, and physician colleagues, they know. The kind of knowing that doesn’t need words or explanation. We know because we have put blood, sweat, and tears into this fight. We’ll hear your opinions when you’ve put as much in.
Rachel Basham is a nurse.
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