By Stephanie Wagner, RN, BSN
I am a nurse at a hospital in Colorado where I work on a telemetry floor, meaning anything to do with the heart: heart attacks, cardiac procedures, arrhythmias and so on. We care for patients with many diagnoses like strokes, seizures, various organ failures, detoxing and diabetes. While type 1 diabetes (T1D) is not often the primary diagnosis, diabetes is a common comorbidity among our patients.
When we first heard of this virus called Coronavirus or COVID-19, half way across the globe, we thought we were safe in our castle and wouldn’t have to deal with it directly.
How wrong we were.
As cases started presenting in the United States, our administration formed a command center made up of key leaders of our organization. We received education and updated protocols regarding care for COVID-19 patients. We were doing all we could to be ready to take on this unprecedented challenge head on and tried to squash our apprehensions. Nursing is our job and career, but it’s also who we are. We don’t back down from a fight or leave our community in need. When the first case hit our unit, we were nervous. Information about transmission and best practice was still being developed. To be safe, we took every precaution possible. As the number of cases grew, so did our anxieties. Were we doing the right things? Taking the right steps? We had no idea. We just had to trust.
All COVID-19 patients were admitted to the same unit to minimize possible exposure. When one unit wasn’t enough, they opened a second unit and it quickly filled. Soon, our Intensive Care Unit (ICU) was packed with intubated COVID-19 patients and was running out of room. My unit began caring for patients who would typically be in the ICU but to make space, we took them on with the adjunct ICU staff. We all had to do our part. While I did not care for COVID-19 patients directly, “intubation alerts” rang overhead all too often, indicating a patient was in respiratory failure and needed to be immediately intubated and ventilated in an attempt to save their life. These and the “Code Blue” alarms served as a grim reminder of the battle we were fighting together. When an alarm would sound, all we could do was stop, look each other in the eye, say a silent prayer for the patient and staff involved, and then immediately get back to caring for our patients.
Our patients were scared. They were scared they would be exposed by being in the hospital and scared to be alone. They couldn’t have visitors so we did our best to arrange Zoom meetings on iPads and called loved ones on speaker phone so they could talk to the doctor. We did our best to spend extra time with them so they didn’t feel so alone. They couldn’t see our reassuring smiles through our masks, but I hope they saw it in our eyes, or felt it though the touch of our hands. We wore masks the whole shift and face shields as needed. Most of us wore hair caps and took any precaution we could to stop the spread of germs. I started changing into new clothes after my shift so I wouldn’t bring any virus home. That was my greatest fear. While walking past room after room of patients on ventilators I feared for my own exposure, however I had greater fear for my family and husband.
My husband lives with type 1 diabetes. He is my everything. And the thought of coming home and possibly giving this disease to him kept me wide awake at night with a pit of dread in my stomach which grew every day. I did not quarantine from him as some healthcare workers chose to do. We agreed together that we would stay together. I did stop seeing any other family or friends. I took every precaution I could to prevent bringing home the virus or spreading it at work.
Seemed like every shift we were updated on the latest policy or procedure. Things were always changing and change can bring fear. But my team is like none other and we leaned on each other for support. We cried together when our patients declined and cried out for their loved ones, and we had to be the ones to explain they couldn’t come visit. We looked to each other when things were bleak, laughed together when we could, kept forging ahead and did whatever was asked of us.
We were shocked and touched by the outpouring of support from the community. So many meals were delivered, gifts of snacks, goodies and encouraging notes, drawings and letters. This and the support of our families and friends kept us going. Through the grace of God we kept going, working extra shifts and praying we would be able to do our jobs and fulfill our passion for caring for people and still stay safe.
I am happy to say the case numbers are continuing to decrease. The light at the end of the tunnel is visible. Still, the air is tense and our hearts heavy. We were shaken but not broken, what remains is even stronger. I don’t think we will ever go back to our previous normal. We’ve been changed. We all have. No one knows how this will all play out in the end, but I’m proud to look back and say, I did my part. And if COVID-19 rears its ugly face again, we will fight it again. Together.