The outbreak of of the COVID-19 coronavirus has presented an immense challenge for hospitals and healthcare workers around the world. In New York City, hospitals are ramping up their response to the virus as more positive cases are identified each day.
On a phone call, one nurse at a major New York hospital shared her personal experience preparing to care for the most vulnerable—and her advice for what you can personally do to help slow down this crisis. Her story has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I always knew I liked to work with people.
I loved sitting with my grandparents when I was younger. My grandma was a nurse in World War II. I keep on thinking about her during all of this because she was on the front lines. My dad would always say that she would never talk about the war because she probably saw a lot worse than my grandpa, who was a lieutenant, did. I think about [the coronavirus outbreak in] Italy and it’s what I think she probably went through a lot of days after battles.
I was really inspired by her my entire life. Being as close as I was with her, that really inspired me to be a nurse.
It was early January when I first heard about [the coronavirus]. I remember seeing something really early on about it and thought it could be really serious. Then I read more about it, and thought that we have cases of coronavirus all the time, and it could’ve been tied to the Lunar New Year and everything that was going on at the time in China, with so many people out and about. I remember thinking it would just be something that would end up being okay.
In the last two weeks, especially last week, my mind shifted from “it’s going to be okay” to “this is going to be an issue.” [What changed my mind was] you can be asymptomatic for so long and even be asymptomatic the whole time. I read about South Korea’s response and that the largest number of people who were carrying the virus were people in their 20s and 30s—and many of them were asymptomatic the entire time. It’s not like the flu where you show symptoms right away and then can figure something out. Plus, nobody is vaccinated against it.
Nurses always go into the unknown. Every day is an unknown when you’re working in a hospital. And this is what we signed up for.
For our hospital, we’re already basically at capacity. There’s no room for much more right now. That hit me more last week. What do we need to do to prepare ourselves? And trying to answer that question really struck a chord with me because we really aren’t prepared for this.
I was supposed to switch to a new job at the hospital last week, but with this ramping up, it was clear our census on this new unit was going to be low. I had heard what was going on at the hospital, that a nurse was tested positive and that ended up quarantining 23 nurses from that unit. I had this feeling that I probably should offer myself up to go back. So I talked with my bosses and decided to go back to the floor.
Everyone is frustrated because we don’t feel prepared. We’re at one of the hospitals that are short of supply. People want to be protected. Every nurse I’ve talked to at different hospitals, those institutions have different protocols lined up. So it’s not very reassuring because we’re not all doing the same thing. We’re just handling the best way we can. The CDC keeps changing the precautions we need, so you wonder if they’re [saying] you only need a certain kind of mask because the country is short on N-95 masks. You can’t help but wonder what’s actually going on.
There’s fear, for sure, from everyone who’s currently caring. Uncertainty and not being comfortable in the new areas they may be asked to work is also causing fear for the staff. But it’s hard to say exactly how people are feeling right now because it changed so drastically in between last Friday and today.
There was a stat that 60-80% of cases, you wouldn’t even know that you’re sick. But that’s not really the point. It’s the 20-40% of patients that this could affect who would need hospital beds and ventilators. We’re already in the height of flu season. We don’t have the hospital beds to care for that much more. When shit hits the fan with a patient, the amount of people that it requires to get that patient to a stable place is so much. We now wouldn’t be able to do that.
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I definitely have people that I know who aren’t taking this seriously. It feels like a slap in the face. I’m boggled by the negotiations people are trying to have right now. “I’ll quarantine on Monday, but I want to go out on Saturday and Sunday.” You’re negotiating something that’s non-negotiable. We all need to follow these guidelines in order to not create a surge of patients.
If we do succeed in keeping the rates low, it’s going to look like we overreacted. It’s almost frustrating because there will be doubters of what actually happened. The flu and everything that happens during this time of year, people are like, “If you can handle the flu, why can’t you handle this?” It’s not that we can’t handle the coronavirus, it’s about having enough people to care for people with coronavirus. It’s having enough beds. It’s having enough supplies. It’s about having enough bandwidth and resources to care for people on top of flu patients.
These situations bring out a lot of good in people.
I’m handling the stress day-by-day. This is what I’ve been called to do. I’ve always wanted to care for people that can’t care for themselves. One of my biggest fears is not being able to care for everyone and meet everyone’s needs if there is this big increase in patients. I’m staying calm by thinking about how I’ve handled really tough days in the past before—and I got through it. I have a really great team of nurses that I’ve worked with and I’m not alone in this. This is going to be something that we will get through. Nurses always go into the unknown. Every day is an unknown when you’re working in a hospital. And this is what we signed up for.
When I’m home, I’ve had to re-adjust what I’m doing. It’s good to take some time away from the news. I need to walk away—go outside, get some fresh air, walk my dog. I’ve already scheduled an online happy hour for Friday with a bunch of college girls. These situations bring out a lot of good in people. My neighbor upstairs has been volunteering to deliver groceries to the elderly. That’s really admirable. She’s going out into the city to make sure needs are met out of the love in her heart.
This time does bring out a lot of good, and focusing on that helps. I can’t stop thinking about people who work at pharmacies and grocery stores. They may not be properly protected and they’re helping people get through this. Everyone is doing their best and that mindset helps. You just have to stay positive.