By now you’ve seen the photos on Instagram: nurses and hospital staff geared up in PPE (personal protective equipment) holding signs that read, “We stay at work for you. Stay home for us.” It's a necessary plea—coronavirus has come to the United States, and every day it threatens to completely overwhelm our country’s hospitals unless we flatten the curve. The heroes in all of this are the people on the front lines: the doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, cleaning crew, paramedics, and thousands of other hospital workers who show up every day for battle. It’s a critical time for them, but they’ve been doing life-saving work long before COVID-19 was a concern.
I know firsthand. On December 23—my birthday—I was in a car accident that resulted in a fractured wrist and leg. Both required surgery, so I was in the hospital for 14 days. And while my doctors were great, it was the nurses, nursing assistants, cleaners, and other support staff who really got me through it. I couldn't walk or use my left arm, so I needed their help for even the most basic of tasks. Anytime I expressed shame over using a bedpan, they’d smile and shake their heads. “I’ve seen it all. This is nothing.” On Christmas, they gossiped with me about the team potluck. Nobody thought to assign dishes, I learned, so everyone brought rice—a disaster! New Year’s Eve was a hard day for me, so Greg, the head R.N. for the wing, held my hand and let me cry. It can be really shitty in here sometimes, he told me, but they were here to help me leave. Later, at midnight, I heard the night crew cheer and was comforted. After each of my three surgeries, one of my favorite R.N.s, Sonia, would go out of her way to come by the recovery room and check on me. I was in pain and delirious from the anesthesia, but I always knew her voice.
I feel helpless right now. I sit from my couch with the privilege to work from home, knowing that these caretakers and new friends are risking their own lives to help others. Many of the staff I met have a long commute to get to the hospital every day. Most were balancing a second job, schooling, or childcare. I want to do more, so I do what I can: I stay at home to stop the spread. I donate to charities that help provide the protective care they desperately need. And I reached out to other nurses and caregivers across the country to share their stories, in the hopes that it will inspire more people to do their part.
Below, stories from nurses, caregivers, and other health providers about their experience with the coronavirus pandemic, what they’re doing to take care of themselves in a time of crisis, and how you can help.
“Our reality is changing so rapidly.” —Mariam, critical care nurse
“The transition of responding to a global pandemic in a New York City hospital has been intense, abrupt, and shocking. We began the month only speaking about COVID in side conversations or when another cruise ship was held in quarantine. And here we are, three weeks later, the entire hospital dissolved of its usual floor designations and on-goings and gearing up as if we are going into battle.
“Our reality is changing so rapidly—sometimes even hourly. By the end of the day, we are getting new directives to replace ones instituted earlier that morning. We are practicing and delivering care in different and creative ways in order to accommodate issues we typically don’t deal with in the American health care system: wiping down face shields in between caring for patients, preserving our one N95 mask for the day, reusing protective gowns if not visibly soiled.
“In comparison to the countries that have been hit particularly hard, these measures are mild when considering how severe the situation can become. As of now, my hospital hasn’t reached the point of housing multiple COVID-positive patients in a one-person room, or connecting two patients who are on breathing tubes to one ventilator machine, or having over 10% of staff fall ill from the disease. But if and when those days come, we will handle it. We will do what is needed to get through this battle with as few casualties as possible.
“We will make it through because of the bravery and dedication of humanity.”
“The nature of this virus is unlike anything we have seen before. Patients who get very sick from it decompensate at alarming rates; one minute they’re doing okay, and the next minute they can’t breathe and need CPR. It is a harsh reality, and some days are very grim. Our work environment has completely transformed, the energy has totally shifted, and it will only continue to morph as the patient load surpasses our capacity to treat. There is a silver lining, however, and what we have realized is that it is not in any sort of miracle drug that may be in the works right now. The silver lining is in the nurses, doctors, and techs that are rising to meet the demands of this time, even if it means risking their lives and those of their families. It is in the cleaning staff that exposes themselves to the virus while sanitizing rooms so that we may reduce the viral spread. It is in everyone outside of health care who continue to maintain society so that we may eat and have clean clothes and functioning homes while we wait out this storm. We will make it through because of the bravery and dedication of humanity.
“How can people help besides staying home and social distancing? What I’ve come to realize is that everyone is in a different stage of acceptance over the severity of what’s going on. There are many people in many parts of the country still saying, “This is crazy, it’s media hype, I refuse to get worked up and panicked about it.” Here’s the thing: It’s not about being panicked or hysterical. It’s about being prepared and proactive. You don’t have to hoard toilet paper or clear the grocery stores out to take this seriously. Instead, appreciate that the severity of the situation and do what you can to decrease the spread and support those who are fighting it. If you have N95 masks, donate them to your nearest health care facility and use your home as your mask and your protection. Allow us on the front lines to use these resources so that we may care for those who have the virus and not get sick ourselves.
“Donate to the organizations that are assisting in providing medical equipment and supplies to area hospitals, and get on your social media platforms and encourage your community to do the same. Reach out to a nurse, a tech, a doctor, or anyone in health care that you know and buy them a food delivery gift card. And keep working on your craft, on your art, on what lights you up, and share it with the world online.
“Unfortunately, it will only get worse before it gets better, which means we are in this thing for the next few weeks. Because of this, it is very important for those of us in health care to release the tension from work and find ways to decompress in order to sustain our energy levels and capacity to keep pushing through both physically and emotionally. Personally, I have made some major shifts in order to keep my mental peace. I have used this opportunity to craft a new and creative exercise routine, and I promised myself to keep it consistent no matter what. Staying active makes me feel good—closed gyms does not have to mean gains lost!
“Second, I vowed to reserve Monday nights for virtual tango classes, in lieu of the studio in Midtown I normally go to. It feels so good to put on heels and dance in front of the mirror. These simple pleasures don’t have to stop! And third, I took the time to restructure how I prepare to go into the hospital because there’s going to be a lot of hours worked in in these next few weeks, and I want to embrace them. I indulged in new scrubs, downloaded delicious recipes for my meal prepping, and ramped up my skin-care routine to combat the hours of face masks, face shields, and dry hospital air that has already taken a toll on my skin.
“Remember, this isn’t going to last forever. One day, the COVID pandemic will only be a distant memory. But we have to put the work in now in order to get through it. Stay at home, stay safe, and support your friends in the medical field so that we may carry humanity to the other side of this. It is why we do what we do.”
—Mariam, a critical care nurse in New York City
“The people who are sick get sick so fast.” —Jenna, emergency department nurse
“In the community, this experience has been almost apocalyptic, with small businesses closing or boarded up. But people are still at parks as if sitting within six feet of each other is okay because it’s outside. At work, we have closed off most entrances into our hospital. We don’t have proper PPE. We are allowed one N95 mask that we have to cover with a surgical mask in our suspected-COVID or COVID+ rooms. We wipe that mask off with alcohol and store it in a brown paper baggy to use again the next day. The people who are sick get sick so fast. I’ve personally seen it affect 40- to 60-year-old men with minimal comorbidities [multiple chronic diseases or conditions in a patient] more than the 70+ age group. That’s just my own account. My hospital isn’t telling us who’s been exposed and who comes back positive. We still aren’t testing everyone. Those we do test take about four to six days to come back.
“I’m taking care of myself in different ways. I slept 11-and-a-half hours last night. I’m a runner, so I’ve been doing that (but I won’t run by people!). I’m having lots of Lush bath bomb time too, thanks to my mom and sister.
“Stay safe, learn a hobby, and wash your hands!”
“Here's how you can help: If you’ve hoarded gloves or masks of any kind, donate them. Because in reality, they won’t help you—and if we get sick, more people die. I’d also really like people to support local businesses during this time, especially ordering to-go from small businesses that are struggling the most. And donate meals to hospitals. It’s been so nice to be able to run into the break room and eat a quick snack that was donated to us from the community.
“It’s not just old people who are affected by this, guys. I had a perfectly healthy 30-year-old come in with chest pain. Turned out his mom was COVID positive and the sac around his heart was inflamed from it. That was his symptom: chest pain, nothing else. If you are going to the hospital for something else, ask yourself: Is this truly an emergency? Will I die if I don’t go? Because chances are we will inadvertently give COVID to you. Stay safe, learn a hobby, and wash your hands!”
—Jenna, an emergency department nurse in Seattle
“I’m waiting to get tested.” —Lindsey, nurse
“I work in a busy inner-city primary care clinic that sees hundreds of patients a day. Between all those patients and their families, there is constant foot traffic coming in and out. This year flu season was especially bad, so seeing patients and their family members coughing and wearing masks around the clinic became the norm for us.
“About two weeks ago, during the height of flu season, the virus started to spread in New York and panic started to grow in our little clinic. Providence isn’t far from NYC, and many patients visit frequently. We knew it was only a matter of time before we would begin to see positive cases. Our clinic began with a rudimentary triage system, asking everyone if they visited New York and/or had cold symptoms. Our management team frantically tried to fit all the staff for our N95 respirators. I was told, ‘You’ll get one, maybe two. So take care of it.’
At that point, we had no access or ability to test patients. I called the Department of Health twice to come and test two different patients, but they refused, saying the patients ‘didn’t meet criteria.’ From a health care professional’s point of view, not being able to test adequately adds to the chaos of the situation because we are unable to narrow down the diagnosis. We were able to rule out the flu—but when the patients asked about possibly being infected with COVID-19, we told them, ‘We just don’t know, so we have to assume that it is the novel coronavirus, and you should take appropriate precautions.’
“We are all exhausted, probably cried multiple times today, and could use the support.”
“Last week, as the virus got a foothold in Rhode Island, we transformed our facility overnight into a giant triage center. We began to advise people to stay home and started a no-visitors policy. As nurses, we are doing our best to filter out patients who actually need to be seen by a provider in person and those who would qualify for telemedicine visits with doctors over the phone. In theory, we are trying to keep those who are not yet infected out of the clinics.
“The change for me, personally, was drastic and abrupt. The once noisy, busy clinic is now quiet and empty, but my workload has doubled as I’m constantly on the phone trying to reschedule appointments and elective surgeries, triage sick patients, and still keep up with all of the normal day-to-day tasks. It’s mentally and emotionally exhausting. I also worry about exposure during that first week, when a lot of things were unclear and chaotic. I’m currently at home with mild symptoms, waiting to get tested. Even though I don’t have any sick time accrued, I want to make sure I don’t unknowingly spread this disease to my patients and coworkers.
“Thankfully I have an excellent support network of friends and family. I’ve been posting updates regularly on social media and have received an outpouring of love and support. I have several friends who have volunteered to make me some cloth masks to cover my precious N95 that I have named Wilson.
“Other than staying home, I think the average person could help by giving as much encouragement and support to the medical community as they can. We are all exhausted, probably cried multiple times today, and could use the support. Reach out to your friends in the medical field, see how they are holding up. Additionally, if you have any extra PPE such as gloves, hazmat suits, or masks, please consider donating them to your local hospital!”
—Lindsey, a nurse in Providence
“We always like food.” —Bridget, E.R. pharmacist
“It’s definitely stressful. We’re seeing a lot of patients come in with respiratory infections, so we’re trying to weed out who actually has the COVID-19 virus and who has the normal stuff that goes around every winter. That’s hard to do because we don’t have all the tests available, so we’re having to restrict it to patients who meet a very strict set of criteria. We’re trying to protect ourselves as much as possible, with masks, goggles, scrubs, and all that stuff. But those are running in short supply. It’s all very stressful, but we’re just taking it day by day. The good thing about people in health care right now is that we still have jobs. There are a lot of people around the country who don’t or are making limited income.
“Staying inside is the biggest thing people can do. Don’t have play dates with your neighbors, because right now we don’t really know if children could be asymptomatic carriers, or even adults. Just because you feel okay doesn’t mean you don’t have it. Stay as isolated as you can. But, we always like food. People are sending in pizzas, cookies, things like that to emergency rooms. I think that’s a great idea because it is a strange time. Whenever we can sit around a table and maybe have a slice of pizza, it’s a break from the reality. You feel like you’re back in your normal life.
“This is going to be a long stretch, but we will get through it.”
“I use this fitness app called Obe for self-care. I’m now four months postpartum, and it’s helped me trying to get back in shape after the baby. These days I’m either locked in my house or at work, so it’s been nice because the workouts are just 30 minutes. I feel like a human again, and it’s a little escape. I even use it sometimes while I’m at work on a break. It’s really the one escape from reality I have right now.
“I want everyone to just stay positive. This is going to be a long stretch, but we will get through it. We’ll see the other side and stay strong.”
—Bridget, an E.R. pharmacist at a pediatric hospital in Colorado
“The most important thing is social distancing.” —Kathleen, ICU nurse
“COVID-19 is beginning to hit our area hard, and it’s already starting to overwhelm health care providers. A lot of infected patients are requiring ICU care, which requires ICU nurses and ICU doctors. There are only so many specifically trained. We have already started to ration masks in preparation for the inevitable. This past weekend I received one mask for my two weekend shifts and was given a brown paper bag to place it in. The number of masks and eye shields are already dwindling in our ER. We are anxiously waiting for supplies to completely run out, and then what happens? How do we protect ourselves and our families when that happens?
“The most important thing is social distancing. It’s really upsetting to be driving to the hospital and see groups of people having picnics outside or getting their nails done at the local salon despite the closure of nonessential businesses. So please, please, practice social distancing and stay home! As COVID-19 continues to spread, consider donating any unused, new, and sealed gloves, masks, and goggles to your local hospital.
“As nurses, we signed up for being there for our patients, their families, and the general public no matter what.”
“For us on the front line, there aren’t many moments to take break, but staying well hydrated, trying to get a few hours of uninterrupted sleep, lots of vitamin C, and taking a moment to just turn off our brains for a second are key. This is an unprecedented time, and our priority is to the patients. Unfortunately, as a result our own health is on the back-burner.
“As nurses, we signed up for being there for our patients, their families, and the general public no matter what. We’ve been training for moments like this our entire careers, but only with the proper safety equipment in place. I love my career, and I am thankful to be surrounded by an amazing group of health care professionals.”
—Kathleen, an ICU nurse in Philadelphia
“If we lose work, who will pay our bills?” Lee, care worker
“There’s a stigma that if you wear a mask it means you have the virus. It’s very dangerous for the elderly to be exposed. At the assisted living facility where I work, I had to have my temperature taken before entering the building. If your temp is over 100 degrees, you are sent home. When we are sent home, that means no work and no pay.
“When we are sent home, that means no work and no pay.”
“It’s really depressing for us as home care workers. Just as with nannies and house cleaners, if we lose work, who will pay our bills? We have to be strong, take care of our own health, and figure out how we can make a living in other ways. We can also get referrals from other friends who might need our help.”
—Lee, a care worker in Los Angeles
“We have a right to be taken seriously.” —Danielle, acute-care nurse practitioner
“On top of the normal ICU stress, there is a low-level baseline fear and anxiety that is always in the backs of our minds. Our hospital is not allowing visitors, so the atmosphere is eerily quiet. However, the amount of teamwork and sense that we are all working toward the same goal is as present as ever.
“Check on the older people and people with comorbidities in your area. Make sure they have food and toilet paper. Even if they have the capability to go to the store, they shouldn’t be leaving the house because they are at the highest risk of contracting the disease.
“This is real, and it is history.”
“I do a lot more sitting in silence than I did previously. It’s probably a form of meditation, but any moment of peace I can get away from work is a good moment. I am also excessively snuggling my geriatric Welsh corgi, Charles.
“This is real, and it is history. When citizens try to discount the rage of the virus, it is personally offensive to health care workers because of what we are experiencing and feeling. We are risking our health and the health of our families for the sake of the human race, and we have a right to be taken seriously.”
—Danielle, an acute-care nurse practitioner in the intensive care unit in Cleveland
Anna Moeslein is a senior editor at Glamour. Follow her on Instagram @annamoeslein.
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