The day the Governor of Illinois declared a state of emergency in our state, I was one of the few cars driving through downtown Chicago, heading for my night shift. All the traffic was going out of town. I was petrified. As a registered nurse at one of Chicago’s teaching hospitals, I had to be ready for COVID-19 patients — but I didn’t know how to prepare for it.
The hospital attempted to separate COVID-19 patients from other patients. But there was no way of knowing which patients had COVID-19 and which did not. Patients were not tested on admission. If a patient was tested, the sample had to be sent to an outside lab and it took around seven days for the results to come back.
Every day I came into work, I found out that another patient I was caring for or a staff member I had come into contact with had tested positive for COVID-19. There were not enough surgical masks or N95 masks for all hospital staff to wear.
At first, I isolated myself from my friends and family. I was afraid of transmitting the virus to them. I haven’t seen my parents and my brother for several weeks. I felt so alone. I couldn’t go through a full shift without having a nervous breakdown. I didn’t know if I had been exposed to the virus. I didn’t know when I would be able to see my friends and family again.
Shortly after stay-at-home orders came into effect, my unit, along with the rest of the hospital, became exclusively for COVID-19 patients. Pediatric patients have been transferred to other hospitals to make more intensive care beds available.
Visitors were banned from the hospital. Patients died without loved ones at their bedside.
My colleagues were contracting COVID-19 and were on leave – some of them were hospitalized. One of my colleagues ended up in intensive care, on a ventilator for three weeks. The husband of one of the nurses contracted COVID-19 and died. Hospital staff and nurses died.
We were understaffed and desperate for help. The hospital had to hire agency nurses to fill the staffing gap.
In May 2020, I tested positive for COVID-19. Despite wearing a mask and proper personal protective equipment, I believe I caught the virus from a patient I cared for for two shifts in a row. The patient required a lot of care. I was with them almost every shift – bathing, cleaning, drawing blood, monitoring vital signs and looking for signs of respiratory distress. Often, COVID-19 patients don’t show warning signs of respiratory distress — they’re ticking time bombs. The only thing I can do is be ready to call a code and have the proper equipment available at all times.
I was off work for six weeks with COVID-19. I was so sick, but I had to stay isolated for fear of transmitting the virus to someone else. I live alone and the only companion I had with me was my dog. All I could do was wait to see if I started having trouble breathing or getting a high fever, or any signs that I needed to go to the hospital. Fortunately, I did well and was able to avoid the hospital. My friends and family have found ways to support me despite the isolation.
When the pandemic started, I had no idea that I would still be caring for these patients more than two years later. Now I’m not afraid. I know how to care for these patients and I know how to protect myself. Tests and vaccines are readily available. I know COVID-19 is another virus that I will see in patients in the future – it is going to be around for a long time and we have to co-exist.
As the United States surpasses one million deaths from COVID-19, I am sad that we have reached this milestone. I am sad for lost loved ones. My heart aches for the patients I have lost to this virus. I am surprised that we have ended up at this point because COVID-19 treatments have improved and I see many patients recovering. But, the pandemic has been going on for more than two years.
I became a nurse because I wanted to help others. But the pandemic has taught me what it really means to be a nurse. Nurses are resilient and adapt in times of crisis. We have been working with our hospital administration and doctors to fight COVID-19. But when everyone pulled out, it was the nurses who stayed at the patient’s bedside to help.