The coronavirus pandemic is truly like a war

Maybe this sounds dramatic, but the coronavirus is like a war.  The soldiers are health care workers. The enemy is the virus. The battlefield is the hospitals.  We are finding out that life can turn on a dime.

I found that out 30 years ago in August 1990.  Iraq invaded Kuwait. I knew as soon as they started deploying troops to Saudi Arabia that I would be going. By the end of August, I was in Saudi.  I was a flight nurse in an aeromedical evacuation unit in the Air National Guard. I spent the next six months there.

This reminds me so much of that. The sudden change in life circumstances. The waiting. That’s probably the biggest reminder. The daily pins and needles wondering if this was the day the war was going to start.

Then it started, the feeling of complete powerlessness and helplessness. The dire warnings about casualty counts.  In this case, critical patients. The eyes of the people we evacuated. How young they all were.  This time they are vulnerable adults.

The chemical warfare gear. Carrying the mask around all the time attached to your body. Wishing you had paid more attention to training. This time the gear is PPE.

The tremendous responsibility felt for the enlisted (techs, nursing assistants, med students), who would be looking to you for leadership. The worry about how young some of them were.

You face your own mortality.  Accepting that this could be it for you. In this war, you could catch it and die. The waiting. Then it starts, and you are thrown in the middle. You can’t believe it’s coming true. You feel you don’t have what you need.  You are in charge of up to 60 patients on a plane. You have one other nurse and three med techs to help you. As you do your job, you feel very vulnerable.  The plane could be shot down. You could get the virus.

You do your job because you have to. You said you would. The wounded (patients) are counting on you.

Everyone, particularly health care workers, is going through this right now. Most are waiting, and that is torture. They are preparing. They feel powerless. It’s like their lives are not their own anymore. No one shows the fear they feel. It’s not talked about. They will become closer to each other than they already were. They will get through it.  They have to. They don’t have a choice.

When it is over, because everything eventually ends, there will be joy. You feel so lucky.  Once that wears off, you return to normal life. You feel like an alien. There are few people who had the same experience. It is confusing because you are supposed to go on with your life. You feel lonely in the experience. Some will have PTSD out of this. Others will cope with memories in unhealthy ways.  Most will put it in a box and close the lid tight, choosing to leave the experience there. It will not be talked about.  Even with it in the box, the majority of the time, events will trigger memories. People will ask you what it was like.  They really don’t want to know, so you say little. Eventually, the experience will fade, but the memories will never go away completely.

The similarities to war are uncanny. The war changed my life forever. This will change health care workers’ lives forever.  It makes you realize what is important. You find out life really can turn on a dime.

Susan Shannon is a retired nurse who blogs at madness: tales of a retired emergency room nurse.

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