The day the governor of Illinois declared a state of emergency in our state, I was one of the few cars driving into downtown Chicago, heading to my night shift. All of the traffic was flooding out of the city. I was petrified. As a registered nurse at one of the academic hospitals in Chicago, I had to be ready for COVID-19 patients — but I had no idea how to be prepared.
The hospital attempted to separate the COVID-19 patients from the other patients. But there was no way to know which patients had COVID-19 and which ones did not. Patients weren’t being tested upon admission. If a patient was tested, the sample had to be sent to an outside lab and it took about seven days for the results to come back.
Every day I came into work, I would find out another patient I cared for or a staff member I came in contact with had tested positive for COVID-19. There weren’t enough surgical masks or N95 masks for all of the hospital staff to wear.
In the beginning, I isolated myself from friends and family. I was scared I would spread the virus to them. I did not see my parents and brother for several weeks. I felt so alone. I couldn’t make it through an entire shift without having a nervous breakdown. I didn’t know if I had been exposed to the virus. I didn’t know when I could see my friends and family again.
Shortly after the stay-at-home orders took effect, my unit, along with the rest of the hospital, became exclusively for COVID-19 patients. The pediatric patients were transferred to other hospitals so more ICU beds could be available.
Visitors were banned from the hospital. The patients were dying without loved ones at their bedside.
My coworkers were contracting COVID-19 and were out on leave — some of them were hospitalized. One of my colleagues ended up in the ICU, 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 short-staffed and desperate for help. The hospital had to hire agency nurses to fill the staffing shortages.
In May 2020, I tested positive for COVID-19. Despite wearing a mask and the proper personal protective equipment, I believe I caught the virus from a patient I took care of for two shifts in a row. The patient required a lot of care. I was with them for almost the entirety of the shifts — bathing, cleaning, drawing blood, monitoring vital signs and looking for signs of respiratory distress. Often, COVID-19 patients do not exhibit warning signs of respiratory distress — they are ticking time bombs. The only thing I can do is be prepared to call a code and have the appropriate equipment available at all times.
I was on leave from work for six weeks with COVID-19. I was so sick, but I had to stay in isolation out of fear that I could spread 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 spiked a high fever, or for any signs that I needed to go to the hospital. Luckily, I did OK and was able to avoid the hospital. My friends and family found ways to support me despite the isolation.
When the pandemic started, I did not know that I would still be caring for these patients more than two years later. Now, I am not scared. I know how to care for these patients and I know how to protect myself. Testing and vaccines are readily available. I know COVID-19 is another virus that I will be seeing in patients going forward — it’s going to be around for a long time and we have to coexist.
As the U.S. has surpassed 1 million COVID-19 deaths, I am sad that we have reached this milestone. I am sad for the lost loved ones. My heart aches for the patients I have lost to this virus. I am surprised we have found ourselves at this point because COVID-19 treatments have improved and I see many patients recover. But, the pandemic has continued 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 a crisis. We worked together with our hospital administration and our physicians to fight COVID-19. But when everyone else retreated, it was the nurses who stayed at the bedside to help.