It is all about the nurses and the respiratory therapists. I watch countless brave actions every day in the ICU. These are people who, in “normal” times, spend nights, weekends, and holidays caring for the sickest of the sick. They are modestly paid, and often have little control over their schedules. They balance a stream of demands from doctors, patients, families, and an insatiable electronic medical record that demands constant feeding. I have admired them for my whole career. Recently, I figured out one reason that they are able to do this impossible job. They look after one another, and in turn, feel looked after by their teammates. I have never heard a nurse or RT say “no” when a colleague asks for help, be it for bathroom break, a poop clean up, or help with a finicky arterial line.
And now, in this time, the team has risen to the challenge. Without hesitation, any nurse or therapist will grab some protective gear and hustle into the room of a patient in need— regardless of whether or not it happens to be their assignment. They do this knowing that many of their sisters and brothers in Italy have died, and many in the U.S. have fallen gravely ill. They do this, not because they think COVID is a minor threat. The unit full of catastrophically sick patients makes the situation very clear. They are very scared. But they go in anyway. Not with the foolhardiness of the thrill-seeker, but with true courage.
An 82-year-old woman has reached her end. She is kept alive by the ventilator but will not survive. Like all of her fellow sufferers, she is alone. Family can only call. As the time came near to remove the breathing tube, an angel went into that woman’s room, leaned across her, and held a phone to her ear for 45 minutes. So that woman could hear her loved ones. But that’s not the end of the story! The breathing tube came out, and this sweet lady hung in there for another day. She was moved to another room. Still alone. And another nurse spent more than an hour draped over her again, ( now being coughed on regularly) holding the phone to her ear. I gently scolded her for going into the room too much (because I cannot stand the thought of one nurse getting sick). Her answer was, “I don’t want her to die alone.”
A 62-year-old old man, sick and on the ventilator for many days, has made progress. It looks like he might make it without the breathing tube. But when it comes out, he struggles. Heart races, oxygen levels drop. A nurse and a RT dash in. “Cough!” they yell. “Take big deep breaths!” In this time, that is pretty much like demanding that someone spit poison on you. They stayed in that room for more than 30 minutes, insisting that that patient cough on them. And he made it. In fact, he’s home now. He almost certainly does not remember who saved his life.
But I do. I know their names.
I don’t know about you all, but I am not worthy of these people. I will never forget who abandoned them, and I will not abide by a rewrite of history that excuses the shameless.
William V. Kinnard is a pulmonary and critical care physician.
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