Graduates of the Washington State University College of Nursing are working with COVID patients throughout the state and around the country. They recently shared their thoughts with the WSU College of Nursing about what it’s like working in the COVID unit.
The common denominator is exhaustion. Nurses are tired after battling this pandemic for more than a year and a half.
And surprisingly, after being hailed as heroes early in the pandemic, many reported feeling under attack now by people who don’t believe COVID is real or who are against vaccination.
The nurses’ names and the location of their workplace are provided below, but not the specific healthcare facility. Here are their words, lightly edited for clarity.
Jaimie Anderson, BSN ‘19
“I started in the ER in December. We see the whole range, from when they come in because they just want a test, and we see them when they need to be intubated. For some it’s their first time in a hospital. It’s especially scary for them.
“The fact that there’s so much misinformation out there. When people finally realize that what healthcare professionals and doctors have been saying is true, that the vaccines work and COVID is real, they’re intubated and about to die. ‘Hey, can I have the vaccine?’ It’s too late. Also people saying goodbye on the phone is something I’ll never get used to.
“I had an individual who was not vaccinated and her husband was and they both got COVID. The husband was doing fine and she wasn’t. One of her doctors came in with the husband on the phone. They had been married 60 years and you could hear the pain in his voice when he said goodbye. That was the hardest COVID case. I cried in the bathroom after.
“After awhile the number of cases do take a toll on you. I’ve seen several really good nurses leave because of that. I’ve thought about leaving. The fact that I know this community is already losing a lot of nurses – I can’t leave my coworkers to deal with this. I’m staying for my team and for the community.”
Jody Lund, BSN ‘86
“Yesterday we had patients crashing left and right. It takes so long to get all of our PPE on to get to a patient that it’s hard. You want to get there quickly, but in an emergency situation it just takes so long. One of the patients we lost yesterday was 23.
“Personally I am exhausted. I just came off a four-day in a row of supposedly 12-hour shifts, and we all know how that goes. If I go to the bathroom one time at work it’s a good day. We just don’t have time. It’s horrible.
“I’ve given up thinking that I’m going to sleep well. I hear ventilators in my sleep. I hear monitor alarms in my sleep. I spend the night calculating dosages. I spend the night trying to remember what drugs I can hang with what drugs. I try to do things for my physical self to make up for the fact that I don’t sleep.
“I love nursing so much. Other than my wedding day and the birth of my children, nursing has given me the best days of my life – and also the worst days of my life.”
Kimberly Trower, BSN ‘12
“I spend a lot of time managing families, dealing with families and visitor restrictions and how to reach patients who are being isolated away from their support systems. I talk families through the process of when a patient is deemed end of life, what that changes in their care. It’s frustrating and sad. For a lot of patients it’s a roller coaster – you’re kind of stable, now you’re not, now you’re stable, now you’re not. Nurses go on that roller coaster ride with the patients and it’s straining.
“The nurses now are everything to a patient. They are the social interaction, they are the hand to hold, they are the medical care. It makes it more holistic, but it makes it harder to be the only contact for that person.
“The hardest part is seeing the community not have any comprehensive understanding of what is occurring in the hospitals and not understand this is a crisis, while the world around us is worrying about whether they can go to the fair or Hoopfest.”
Robyn Walters, BSN ‘16
Coeur d’Alene, Idaho
“I had a baby right when COVID happened. I ended up getting COVID and bringing it home – me, my husband and our 6-month-old son got COVID. I loved my job. But one day I was looking around and said this is not what I want to do anymore. There was no joy.
“Before COVID hit there were still days I felt like I was winning. A lot of times when I was on the COVID unit I wasn’t winning and my patients were dying. I wanted to help people. I didn’t feel like I was helping.
“In North Idaho if you were to go out and tell people you worked in the COVID unit, you were instantly inundated with everybody’s opinions and political views. I didn’t ask for this, I just go to work. It’s turned me off to nursing.
“My last day was Dec. 27.”
Mikaela Hood, BSN ‘16
“I think the hardest part is emotional. We’ve had so many young people pass away. We’ve had families where multiple family members have died within the same day.
“With visitor restrictions you have to keep talking with the family members. If they don’t have a medical background they don’t understand what their family members are going through. You have a person who’s intubated and (family members) say, ‘when do they get to come home?’ You’re like, ‘I don’t think you understand.’
“I don’t think it’s made me reconsider nursing, but there’s definitely a burnout. It’s just so hard when you have so many negative things being said about nurses, like ‘you guys are just making people sick.’ You don’t see what we see. People don’t get that.
“The whole debate over vaccines, it’s so hard. I hope that everybody does get the vaccine. Those people who get to go home, I tell them I know it’s your choice, but try to get your family and friends, people in your church to get the vaccine.”
Paulina Crownhart, BSN ‘21
“On any given night all of my patients have COVID. It’s more of an acute setting than I was expecting to go into right off the bat. It’s terrifying, I’m just getting my feet under me and to have patients with this acuity – it’s a little out of the blue, but at the same time it challenges you. I’m trying to put that positive spin on it, look at the experience I’m getting. But at the same time it makes me worry about burnout, about making a mistake and having it be critical at this point.
“It can be really frustrating working with a population who are not vaccinated because not only are they are not taking care of themselves, they’re not taking care of their community and that’s just a recipe for compassion fatigue. You try to reflect on how we deal with patients every day who have made choices that have landed them in the hospital, but the social element of putting others at risk is just an added frustration.
“(I deal with it) by staying connected with coworkers and friends. I feel like my cohort from WSU was really lucky because even though COVID messed with our trajectory through school, we had a semester where we bonded before COVID hit. My manager does a lot to make sure we feel heard and seen. Communication is key.”
Crystal Cronoble, BSN ‘19
Coeur d’Alene, Idaho
“It’s really hard because these people have really poor outcomes due to the disease process. You get families in the ICU. I took care of a mom whose daughter had COVID and died a few doors down and the mom didn’t even know her daughter had COVID. It’s just a lot emotionally.
“Living in Idaho, where generally people are non-COVID-believers, is a really hard environment to work in. They don’t want to get the vaccine, they don’t want to wear masks, and when they come into the ICU they’re in disbelief they even have COVID. We’ve gone from being the most trusted profession to basically being told we’re dishonest. It would be a lot easier if families could see how sick patients are and how hard we’re working to keep their family alive.
“People will be like, ‘why aren’t you giving my family ivermectin?’ We say, ‘here’s what we’re doing’ and talk them through the whole care plan. And they say, ‘but you’re not giving my family member ivermectin?’ No, of course not.”
Brittany Lealao, BSN ‘20
“All I know right now is COVID nursing. I was thrown into the fire and every day something was different with the guidelines, how we needed to take care of ourselves and these patients.
“I did teeter back and forth – is this really what I signed up for in nursing school? I had new grad thoughts and doubts, do I have the knowledge to deal with these intensive care patients? Am I adequate enough? I walk away feeling exhausted but definitely full of satisfaction.
“I absolutely 110% feel like I’m where I need to be at this point. It was a steep learning curve, but I’m a firm believer that there’s nothing like hands-on learning. It has helped heighten my across-the-room assessment skills and prioritization and delegation. It’s a blessing in disguise, this pandemic.”
Ashley Blew, BSN ‘20
Boca Raton, Florida
“My coworkers are very supportive and the teamwork is there, but it’s very difficult to be working with COVID patients. It’s hard to be the only support for those patients when they can’t see their families, or they get sick so fast. They’re fearful, they’re isolated, they don’t feel well, and they’re afraid of what’s coming next.
“There’s a pretty high amount of moral distress right now on my unit. Being beside those patients and witnessing the traumatic event in their lives. You really are the only person who can provide the support they need, setting up FaceTime and Zoom to see family members, before it’s too late and they can’t speak.”
Karen Nodolf, BSN ‘79
“(I’m in a) group of nurses and social workers (at the Washington Department of Social and Health Services) that go out to long-term care facilities. I had just moved over to the assisted-living group when the pandemic began.
“For me, the most painful thing is the residents. It’s so sad, for so long they couldn’t even get out of their rooms in some of these places. I went into one lady’s room, I looked like a space alien. I said ‘can I come in and talk to you a minute?’ She said, ‘oh please come in,’ and when I was leaving she said, ‘can you stay a few more minutes?’ She was just desperate for company. It was heartbreaking.
“It has been tough. I’m 64. All my friends have either retired or are about to. But I love being a nurse. I’ve worked every aspect known to mankind and have loved it all. But this has been I think the most difficult part of my career for sure. I took up running again just to get out and feel OK again.”
–By Addy Hatch