There are approximately 18 million healthcare workers in the United States. It’s likely some of us know at least one person who works in the field but still many more of us may not. I wondered how the daily lives of these brave professionals changed throughout the course of this year. To get a peek behind the scenes, I spoke with Registered Nurses, Maggie and Sasha, who have worked directly with COVID patients since February. Maggie works in the Emergency Room of a Johns Hopkins affiliated community hospital while Sasha works in a 20-bed Intensive Care Unit at a different community hospital.
Both nurses report that the biggest change to their daily routine is the protocol they must follow before and after seeing patients. Sasha walked me through the required changes to her daily uniform. Nurses are required to wear two masks, a fitted N95 mask and a regular hospital mask. “The outer layer medical mask can be changed between patients while the N-95 underneath isn’t changed until the end of the shift.” A face shield is then placed on top of that and a medical gown must be worn over her uniform. “[The] face shield must be wiped down after each encounter with any one COVID patient [and the] gown must be put on before and removed immediately after caring for a COVID patient.” Maggie’s experience is no different. “As ER nurses we are used to jumping right in and getting things done but we slow down to put on our PPE gear – gowns, gloves, masks, and face shield.”
Due to just this portion of the new requirements, the average wait time in Maggie’s ER has drastically changed. Usually, an hour wait was considered too long. “This year,” she explains, “wait times have reached 4-5 hours because we have fewer beds and COVID protocol requires we wait an hour before we deep clean – including changing curtains, wiping down the walls, etc. – and reuse an exam room a COVID patient was assigned to.” Half of the ER rooms at her hospital had to be converted to negative pressure rooms to care for critical COVID patients in addition to regular ER patients. “A negative pressure room” she explains, “brings the air through a HEPA filter and sends it outside of the building instead of circulating it through the entire department.”
“My daily routine is just tiring. The equipment is uncomfortable and makes me lethargic. It’s hard to breathe. I spend my shift sniffling up drainage because of how the mask presses on my nose.” – Sasha, BSN, RN, CNOR
With over 19 million confirmed COVID cases across the country, it’s easy to understand how a single hospital in any locale can become easily overwhelmed. The changes to their daily routine are tedious and tiring but they do it for the health and safety of themselves, their loved ones, and their patients. Unfortunately, the risk of exposure remains high. Recently, Maggie contracted the COVID-19 virus.
What It’s Like to Contract COVID?
Matthew Boone was a relatively healthy twenty-nine-year-old. Pre-COVID he trained CrossFit and during the pandemic he’s managed to continue his running routine. In early November, Matthew contracted COVID.
“I live in the Dallas/Fort Worth area of Texas and since reopening began, 95% of people are walking around as if it’s still 2019 and we’re not in the middle of a pandemic.” Matthew followed CDC guidelines when a college friend came to visit, and they decided to meet at a bar. He admits, he may have been lax in his caution as the night wore on. “Once the alcohol is flowing, people get careless and stop being as diligent. It’s a naïve invincibility,” he shared.
“You face your mortality a lot sooner than you ever expected. Odds were in my favor, I’m healthy, I’m young, but healthy, young people are dying too. I am more focused and grateful. It gave me great perspective.” – Matthew Boone, COVID Survivor
Matthew’s symptoms started as a dry throat that wouldn’t soothe no matter how much water he drank. Throughout the course of the first day, a dry throat became a tremendous headache. “By the evening, I couldn’t even open my eyes. Even ambient light from the moon hurt.” Maggie’s initial symptoms included a loss of taste and smell. “I usually get really bad sinus infections every winter, so I thought that’s what it was,” she recounts. “A few days after [the first symptoms appeared], I started having really bad body aches and chills, so I went and got tested.” On day two, Matthew visited his local urgent care facility where a COVID test was administered. In both cases, the tests were positive. Both Maggie and Matthew were in for a few weeks of miserable illness.
In the end, Matthew is simply grateful to be alive and is focused on his goals now more than ever. His advice to everyone is, “get tested and wear a mask. Too many young people feel this weird invincibility about it. It’s not about you. It’s about who you can give it to.”
How You Can Help: Wear a Mask and Wash Your Hands
Talking to Sasha and Maggie about the things they’ve seen during this year was admittedly difficult for me to hear. Front line workers are most assuredly heroes. They work 13-14 hour shifts in restrictive PPE gear and have risked their lives to save our nation every day since February 2020. Both Sasha and Maggie were hard pressed to find experiences garnering hope or peace in their memories of this year.
“I wish people would really pay attention. Wear your mask if you do have to go out, wash your hands, and only go places you absolutely have to go to. I know as a nurse I’m tired. I’m tired of doing this.” – Maggie, Registered Nurse, COVID Survivor
“I hate to be pessimistic,” admits Sasha, “but this pandemic has made me wary of people. [… I]t seems like a pointless battle. We’re helping people that don’t care about their own health.” She went on to say, “I wish the public could see how patients look on ventilators, how their bodies look. How they fight the sedatives to remove tubes because of how uncomfortable it is.” Maggie shared a similar sentiment when looking back at the year. “As a nurse, I’m used to dealing with death but this is starkly different. You’re used to families of the patient being there. Literally, these people are dying alone. They are laying in their bed and suffocating alone. I just wish people could be a fly on the wall and see what we’re dealing with.”
Maggie’s silver-lining is her team. They’re a close-knit bunch and provide each other with much needed support. Even the management team at her hospital tries to be as supportive as possible. Because Maggie works at a community hospital, she received support from hospital neighbors as well. She recalls community members posting signs everywhere, being in the parking lot every day playing music or offering snacks and feeding hospital staff.
“We don’t want your ‘thank you’s’ or applauses. We don’t want your ‘you’re a hero’ speeches. We don’t want your accolades. We want you to wear a mask so that this thing can come to an end and we can take a vacation.” – Sasha, BSN, RN, CNOR
In the end, both Maggie and Sasha would trade all other forms of support for the public simply wearing a mask. “Just wear a mask,” pleads Sasha.