“I still cry when I hear a jackhammer. There was construction outside on a day when we lost 5 patients in one shift. I researched the top 40 songs of the patients’ 16th birthday, and played them on my phone to the unconscious and dying.”
When this began in March of 2020, I was called upon to help create a new type of treatment wing — a unit that previously did not exist in my current level of care. It was challenging and uplifting to be able to do something that yielded an actual result, in a time with so much uncertainty. During this time, there was so much competing information; from the CDC, state regulatory boards, and mainstream media. My focus quickly changed from using the information provided to create a secure contamination unit, to educating people about what was real, what science proved, and what we could control. It was a constant battle to educate residents and the general public; especially families of the residents, who were encountering limits to visitation and communication with their loved ones for the first time. The challenge to inform was compounded by new information, which changed state and federal regulations on a daily basis.
This battle continues.
From April to September, the unit was up and running. All new admissions came to this unit for a 14-day minimum before being transferred to the general population. During this time, we had no positive cases of COVID on the unit. There was a naive sense that what we were doing was actually working. There continued to be push-back from the public regarding the regulations required to prohibit visitation and exchange of any personal items to and from the public. Residents could not receive care packages or any items that could not be sterilized. Although this doesn’t seem like it would make a huge impact, the residents who used to see their families frequently-some daily, now were isolated. Some of these residents were unable to comprehend the circumstances, reasoning, or time frame. Their loved ones just disappeared. The staff they had come to know and love were now dressed as Hazmat workers. And masks made it impossible for the largely hearing-impaired population to understand.
Not only language was lost, but facial expression. Looks of love, empathy, understanding, and joy no longer existed.
Then came the first positive COVID case. I didn’t return home to my daughter for six weeks.
After seven months of stringent adherence to policy and procedure, the first COVID positive case was detected. It was on this day that I moved onto the campus of the facility where I work. All measures had been in place for this event since the unit’s inception. I was the RN assigned to run this unit.
This was the moment things changed.
In a few hours, I would know that my security in preparation was no match for the reality of this pandemic. Within five hours of the positive result, the first patient had been transferred out by ambulance in respiratory failure. But, also, in that same five hours, three more positive cases were diagnosed. The statistics however, are not the story here, the people are. Within a week, the 5-bed positive unit had grown to a 22-bed unit. And, it was full.
There’s no way to truly express what these months were like, so instead I will share some of the most impactful stories. My job had changed in ways even I didn’t recognize. It has taken me a month to write this story, because I hadn’t even unpacked it all.
I became a Hospice nurse, a social worker, a family therapist, an IT support person, a maintenance employee, housekeeping, dietary, clergy person, and funeral prep technician. I did all of these things because I love my job as a nurse, and that was what the situation called for. To advocate for my patients, and their peaceful transition, while providing as much empathy, dignity, and honor to their existence as I was able.
This took on many different forms: I walked the floor every hour, just to make sure people were alive, sometimes they weren’t.
I facilitated phone calls and facetime with residents, so that they and their loved ones could be connected one last time.
I held hands and shared space.
I was a conduit of love for the dying, and family members living vicariously through me.
I contracted COVID-19, I worked seven 12-hour days in a row while infected. There was no risk to the patients as they were all already infected. I recovered.
I researched the top 40 songs of the patients’ 16th birthday, and played them on my phone to the unconscious and dying.
We danced with jubilation to Diana Ross when patients would recover and transfer out of the unit. I’m Coming Out!!!
I didn’t go home for six weeks.
I still cry when I hear a jackhammer. There was construction outside on a day when we lost 5 patients in one shift.
I called the coroner for every death, which was a new step in the process of COVID tracking.
I prepared bodies.
The pandemic had changed this process in ways I never got used to. We, the nurses were now responsible for spraying disinfectant into the orifices of the people who were alive moments before. There was something very dehumanizing about this process. Spraying a disinfectant into the mouth, nose, eyes, ears, and all other orifices of a person. Then they were double bagged for the funeral home staff to transport. It was for ensuring a safe and secure disposal.
Double bagged. There is only one time I’ve known this terminology to be used, and it was for refuse. There was no way to assimilate this harsh reality for my spirit.
33 times. We completed this process 33 times. We ran out of body bags. We ran out of death certificates.
To attempt to recover from this process, we held a prayer service. We laid a shroud upon their bodies, and prayed for their souls and ours. Then, after the room was cleared, I would play Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)! This was my feeble way to attempt to restore the dignity and honor to the soul who deserved celebration.
66 body bags
33 Amazing Grace Celebrations
67 times we danced to Diana Ross