What It’s Like to Be a Nurse Working on the Front Lines of COVID-19

  • Many nurses around the world are making huge personal sacrifices to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Some have traveled from across the country to help. Others have found themselves working in departments they never practiced in before, learning new routines and protocols as they go.
  • In many cases, they’re also working without the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) they need to ensure their own safety.
  • Nurses say one of the most effective ways we can help them is to follow stay-at-home orders.

Luke Mayes typically works as an acute dialysis nurse at DaVita Kidney Care in Boise, Idaho. He became a nurse because he felt called to help people. And that’s precisely why, when our current global crisis hit, he left his husband and four children to travel to New York and serve on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis.

“I’m just a guy with a big heart,” Mayes told Healthline. “I truly love to use my talents and skills to help those who need it. I am fortunate enough to have a very supportive family that is making the sacrifice of holding down the fort at home, so I can assist with the massive needs across our country.”

Mayes recently posted a Facebook video sharing his experience as a nurse helping in a time of such need. It’s received over 3,000 shares and is littered with comments praising him for his honesty, his compassion, and his bravery in the face of this crisis.

But Mayes isn’t alone in the sacrifices he’s making. The truth is, nurses across the country are stepping up as the heroes we all need right now.

The moving stories we all need to hear

Cedars Sinai recently shared two videos of nurses on the front line talking about their experiences.

ICU nurse Lauren Yamashita talks in her video about being inspired by her fellow nurses who continue to show up every day, expressing a willingness to work extra hours and help in whatever ways they can. And Irine Quintas talks about the little ways nurses are working to provide comfort and connection to their COVID-19 patients.

For many of these nurses, the day-to-day of their jobs has changed significantly. Some have traveled from across the country to help. Others have found themselves working in departments they never practiced in before, learning new routines and protocols as they go.

“Ten thousand people have died here in New York,” said Louise Weadock, a 40-year nurse with a master’s in public health. “I’m right in the heart of it. This was like a Titanic that hit us.”

Weadock is the founder of Access Nursing Services and the COVID Care Force, which she has been using to deploy nurses from all around the country to the areas being hardest hit by COVID-19.

She has experience in this realm, as she served a similar function at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

“Everything in nursing is about getting someone to their next moment,” Weadock said. “Nursing really is all about adapting, and I don’t care where you are in nursing, you’re just trying to get people to that next moment.”

When it comes to COVID-19, that has proven harder than ever before.

Weadock shared a personal story about a fellow nurse who called her crying one night, talking about how she tries to be with all of her patients as they’re dying.

“She said ‘You can’t just let someone die alone, I always try to hold on to my patients,’” Weadock said. “But when you have 20 separate overlapping COVID deaths in a 12-hour shift, you can’t always hold on to them all.”

Weadock said she was in tears during that phone call, and it was why she decided to start the COVID Couch — a weekly video meeting that nurses can join to talk about what they’re experiencing and to remember they’re not alone in it.

Saying goodbyes

Of the nurses she’s helped deploy, Weadock said those willing to go and help where that help is needed most right now are a truly special bunch.

“A lot of them have to change their living arrangements, even if they already live here,” she said. “They feel like they have to leave their families to keep them safe. So nurses will get together and stay together.”

She explained that many of the hospitals are providing housing and hotels like The Four Seasons are offering rooms for free as well.

“So, you know, people are staying in town,” Weadock said. “They’re not going home to infect their little kids.”

She explained that for many of these nurses, whether they’re retired army nurses or what she describes as “gun slinging travel nurses,” this was the wave they’ve been waiting for — the crisis they feel they were born to help get people through.

But even for them, the crisis has been overwhelming. Especially as they’ve watched their own die.

“One of my home care nurses was one of the first 50 to die in New York,” she said. “And I was on the phone with another of my nurses recently who was talking about her best friend, a 26-year-old nurse, who had been diagnosed and was in ICU. She said to me, ‘I’m just glad she has a ventilator.’ Unfortunately, she didn’t make it.”

When asked what she would want the public to know about nurses on the front lines, she said, “These are humans with hearts. These are humans with kids and families and homes that they can’t take care of right now because they have such a hardwired heart to care, they have to go out into this storm. It’s just… that’s how they’re wired.”

It’s a sacrifice Mayes said he recognizes may continue even after he’s left New York. “I’m not sure how long I’ll need to remain quarantined when I return home before I can begin work in Idaho or see my family.”

But for now, he knows he’s where he’s supposed to be.

“I’ve seen nurses who are tired beyond measure, but they smile with their eyes because masks are covering their mouths. The local nurses in New York are so incredibly thankful for the added help. The work that nurses everywhere are doing can’t be accurately described,” he said.

Our nurses need our support more than ever

But not all nurses are getting the help and support they need.

Susan Smith* is a nurse in Oregon. For years she’s worked as an operating room (OR) nurse at a small community hospital, but since the COVID-19 crisis hit, she’s been splitting her time between the OR and ER — where she had no experience prior to this.

She said that while she feels supported by her union, she doesn’t feel supported by the hospital where she works.

“The hospital flat out refused to commit to concrete language in the memorandum of agreement (MOA) between the union and the hospital around making every effort to ensure that appropriate PPE be readily accessible, available, and provided to all staff,” she explained.

This is just one of the issues she highlighted, explaining that the hospital initially wanted nurses who contracted the virus to use PTO (paid time off) instead of workers comp, but that the union was able to fight them on that.

“Time and time again, the hospital will try and enforce a new rule and the union is constantly having to push back. It’s been a nightmare,” she explained.

She said the one thing motivating her to keep moving forward right now is the opportunity to continue working to protect her co-workers.

Smith isn’t the only one experiencing an unsupportive work environment in light of COVID-19.

In California, 10 nurses have been placed on leave for refusing to work with COVID-19 patients without N95 masks. The hospital provided those masks to other healthcare workers, but not to nurses.

In his video, Mayes talked about nurses being afraid of going out into public in their scrubs because of members of the public harassing them (to include cussing at and spitting on them) for not doing enough to contain this crisis.

“And yet, everyone I talk to is working so hard and they’re tired and they’re overworked and they’re spending anywhere from 60 to 80 hours a week working in hospitals just to take care of people’s family members,” he said.

Nurses are arguably making the most sacrifices right now, doing the hardest work — but not everyone recognizes that.

However, Weadock believes this will change soon.

“One nurse turned to me and said, ‘I think the image of the nurse is going to be forever changed in the eyes of the first responders,’” Weadock said, explaining that firefighters and police officers are absolutely supporting nurses in whatever ways they can right now.

Nevertheless, she said she found the comment by this nurse interesting because it was a reminder that nurses haven’t always had the respect they deserve from personnel in those fields either.

“They may look up to us, but in the past, they would be pushing us out of the way on a scene. Now, they see we’ve got this,” she said.

What nurses want right now

While more protective equipment and understanding of what nurses are sacrificing is absolutely warranted, the nurses we spoke to hope the general public will show their respect for nurses in other ways, too.

“We’re not cheering enough for the people walking out of the hospital,” Weadock said, speaking of patients, not nurses. “We’re not hearing enough about the people who are winning COVID. And cheering them on means acknowledging the nurses have done their job well.”

She went on to say, “That face, the face of the nurse with the plastic bag around her head because she doesn’t have a PPE, that’s the face that’s out there. And in spite of that, it’s the guy rolling out the door that is the story the nurses want told.”

People are surviving this thing, even those who have entered the hospital in dire shape. And in many cases, it’s because of the work nurses are doing that they’ve been able to walk out those doors.

Focusing on the survivors is one way to show support for nurses who are working tirelessly to ensure as many people as possible become a part of those “recovered” numbers.

For his part, as he makes the massive sacrifice of being away from his family and putting his own life at risk, Mayes has only one request of the public.

“Please, please, please respect and follow stay-at-home orders,” he said. “I hear from my friends in Idaho’s small, rural mountain towns that people from larger towns are taking trips there to go camping.”

He explained some of these people are going into the small local gas stations and convenience stores to use the restrooms and purchasing groceries and gas as they do.

“When this happens, they are touching surfaces in these small communities and potentially spreading COVID-19,” he said.

He pointed out that these small communities don’t have the medical facilities and staff to manage large groups of COVID-19 patients.

“Please help nurses by following the stay-at-home order and don’t travel if you don’t have to. You may be okay if you contract the virus, but others may not be as lucky,” he said.

*Names have been changed at interviewees request.

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