The COVID Thoughts of an ER Nurse: 2020 WHO Year of the Nurse and the Midwife
“I get to take care of everyone and everything,” my sister Paige says. “Everyone ends up in the ER at some point.”
Paige works as a travel nurse and fills a shift that few other nurses want to take: nights in the emergency room. She considered medical school, but decided against it because, as she says, “The kind of medicine I’m interested in, I never wanted to be the primary care provider. This way I get the challenge, I get to do all the hard work that comes with critical patients, but I also get to spend time with them, reassure them, and put them at ease.”
And she’s wonderful at it. When I had a heart attack a year ago, Paige flew out to keep an eye on me while I was in the hospital. She ended up scolding a lazy night nurse and giving me a much-needed bed bath herself. And the moral support? Off the charts.
“I did a couple of job shadows,” she says. “I really enjoy getting to know people. I also enjoy the detective work it takes to track down what’s wrong with someone, but as a doctor it’s the exception rather than the rule to be able to spend that time and build that relationship. That’s why I do bedside nursing, why I haven’t become a nurse practitioner.”
With COVID, she’s finding that her relationships with patients are even more meaningful. “I’m their emotional support, their sounding board, and their port in a very rough storm,” she says. “When we don’t allow visitors, it has forced us to become the emotional support–even more than before–for our patients, for everything and anything they’re going through. It allows me to create bonds with my patients that I don’t otherwise have the opportunity to create.”
To be fair, I should also include that Paige enjoys the roller-coaster ride that is the emergency room. Day shift, she says, is a lot of broken bones and falls; night shift is “You put what where?” She’ll call me many mornings with hair-raising patient antics: the man who tried to light a cigarette while he was on oxygen; the prisoner who offered to shiv another patient for her; various attempted sexual acts gone hilariously wrong. Her favorite scrub cap is made of blood-spatter fabric. But she really is charmed by the people.
“I had this really sweet patient that I took care of in July, a late-80s-early-90s-year-old woman who used to be a nurse at the hospital I was working at. She used to be the charge nurse in the ER when the ER was two beds in one room. It was neat to have that little tie with her. I admitted her and we talked about her career as I came in and out of the room and took care of her. She was absolutely adorable and she commiserated when the guy in the room next to her was yelling and cussing me out. I handed her off to day shift. And then maybe a week ago I came into work and heard I had a very sick patient I was going to take over from another nurse. There were three nurses in the room with her as she was getting a blood transfusion, one giving me report and the other one doing pressure bag and fluids, and another managing her transfusion, and the patient was head-down in the gurney with her blood pressure in the 70s. When I came in her head popped up off the gurney and she said, ‘Paige? I think you took care of me a while ago. I’m so glad to have you as my nurse again.’ And the other nurses said, ‘Well, forget the blood. All she needed was Paige.’ The woman said, ‘I meant to write you a card last time and it slipped my mind and I’ve thought about it every day since I went home from the hospital. I want you to know it’s not going to slip my mind this time.'”
During COVID, with a sharply increased risk to medical personnel and hospitals unwilling or unable to cough up funds for sufficient PPE, she finds herself reusing N95 masks for multiple shifts, heat-sterilizing them over and over until they’re unusable. Her advice to everyone else: “I’m not saying don’t go do things, but be careful and do your best to protect others and show your love for them. Wearing that mask and social distancing–doing your part–that’s the love and support solidarity we saw after 9/11, and that’s what I think this pandemic could bring us, if only people would buy in.”