S.H. Collin (not her real name), an oncology nurse at a local hospital, shares her feelings about going to work each day in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even though she is not on the frontlines she is on the list of caregivers who could be called to help—a feeling she likens to receiving her draft card when the country is at war.
I am not on the frontlines of this world COVID-19 pandemic. I am somewhere in the shadows, driving to the hospital every day as an oncology nurse.
I walk across an empty street with my cloth mask, donated by some wonderful women in a sewing group who are doing their part. Usually, that street is packed with traffic, but now there’s no one around and I can cross whenever I want to. I walk past inspirational handmade signs that say things like, “Heroes in Scrubs” and “You Are Our Sunshine.” It’s so touching.
I pass the three other hospital entrances that used to bustle with valets and cars. Now they’re empty.
Once inside the hospital, through the only employee entrance, I take off my mask, hat and gloves and wait my turn on the marked yellow tape—six feet away from the next guy—to get my temperature taken and hands sanitized by hospital nurses and nursing assistants donning gloves, gowns, surgical masks, and face shields.
“Thanks guys! Stay safe,” I say every day. And I mean it. Are they at a higher risk of being exposed than I am? Must be. They didn’t sign up for that job. They are outpatient surgical staff, ambulatory office staff, and the like.
But they go where they are routed because they are caregivers, and that is what they are called to do—give care.
I walk down the hall toward the time clock. I touch a blue button on the machine (is the coronavirus on that?!), grab my badge and swipe it (is the coronavirus on that??!), then place my first finger on the scanner to ensure that I am me (is the coronavirus on that?!).
Then, I press one more button on the machine and foam the heck out of my hands—all while not touching my face. Am I being neurotic? Is this borderline OCD behavior? Who knows? I’ll judge myself later after I don’t contract the virus and infect my family and patients.
I walk a bit farther and swipe to open a locked door. I have perfected the art of carefully moving my hand through the door handle before pulling it open with my coat sleeve. It’s like the game “Operation” I play each morning—except if I touch the edges, it will not buzz, but it could cause a viral infection. So much overthinking.
Once in the Cancer Center, I am in a bit of an oasis. It is set away from the inpatient section of the hospital. But it is not immune from the coronavirus, in fact it could be absolutely devastating if the virus does infiltrate the Cancer Center.
Our patients have a special kind of awful immune system—many of them have almost no immune system at all. But we are away from the inpatient population and no oncology staff is going to the positive COVID-19 floors. At least not for now.
We are nurses, after all. We all started out as inpatient, bedside nurses. We cut our teeth on medical-surgical floors, learning how to start IVs, administer medications going into all sorts of body parts. We put NG tubes up noses and learned how to trouble shoot the wall suction. We learned how to trust our own assessments, listen to our guts and advocate for our patients. We learned we are not less than physicians, we are an entirely different profession that works together to care for our patients the best way we know how.
I was that nurse for two years on a heart-monitoring, med-surg floor that specializes in oncology and end-of-life care. I loved that job. It tore my heart out and filled my heart up many times over.
But I got the opportunity to specialize in oncology and I jumped at the chance. So, now I am an infusion nurse. I administer chemotherapy to patients in street clothes, sitting in recliners, watching cable tv to pass the time. And I love this job too, in different ways.
My manager pulled me aside a few weeks ago and asked for my employee number. As she typed in into a spreadsheet, she told me she was compiling a list of nurses able to float to inpatient COVID floors, if needed.
Oh, the panic that jumped around in my guts.
My feelings are so mixed. I am a wife. I am a mother. I am smack dab in the middle of one of the most susceptible populations to contracting the virus. If we contract the virus, we can expect ventilators and…. I really don’t even want to think about it.
I have no interest in bringing the virus home and infecting him, let alone our children. As it is, when I get home, I manically wipe down every surface I touched in my car with high grade sanitation wipes.
Only then do I drop my stuff, yell hello to anyone who’s within earshot and run upstairs to strip, shower, and disinfect. Then it’s down to the basement to wash my uniform and cloth mask.
After that, I can hug my daughter, kiss my husband, and make dinner.
But I am also a nurse. I committed to care for those who are unable to care for themselves. I have the right traits to be a nurse—I was wired for it.
It is an honor to hold the hand of a dying person who has no family. It is humbling to help ease the anxiety of a patient who is scared. I am so grateful to be able to encourage someone to try hard, to take the next step, to believe in themselves.
None of us want to contract COVID-19 and struggle to live. None of us want to expose our family to the same fate.
I am no hero. I am a nurse who goes to work every day to hang chemo and blood products for patients whose cancer is not waiting for social distancing to end. Their cancer is growing in new places, spreading endless fear and anxiety along the way.
My discomfort in navigating this new, weird, post-handshake world is worth it if it allows my patients to go to a familiar place to see familiar faces—to laugh with us, share tears with us, to be honest about real feelings and concerns with us, to have a bit of socialization in an otherwise isolated life of cancer and low immunity, and now the coronavirus.
My anxiety and worry are the same as yours, probably. But my need to be of service as a nurse keeps me getting up every morning, asking the universe to motivate me out of bed and leads me right back to the hospital to do it again.