By Peggy Collins, BSN, RN, CCRN
I'm tired as I write this. Exhausted in so many ways. Physically, mentally, and throughout my entire being. In my over 30 years of bedside nursing, I've never experienced anything like this. Not AIDS, not SARS, not Ebola, not H1N1. I'm scared. But my fear and exhaustion are nothing compared with what my patients feel.
The World Health Organization declared 2020 the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife. All over the world, nurses were planning to get together and celebrate. Plans change. Every day I go to work, and I'm sent to a different area of the hospital to fight this horrible virus. To wage battle against an unseen enemy in a war where we need more equipment and in which the soldiers themselves are becoming casualties. Nurses have gotten sick and become patients in the hospital; some have died. We're low on supplies. Masks are carefully handed out to nurses because there's a finite number of them left.
We strive to save every patient from this beast. Each patient is unique but fighting the same illness. We also search for equipment for our patients. There aren't enough feeding pumps to give nutrition, cooling blankets to treat fevers, suction regulators to clean mouths, and plugs to keep lifesaving I.V. pumps going. In some newly blocked off areas for COVID-19 patients, there's no sink. We aren't sure there will be enough ventilators tomorrow to keep airways open.
As nurses have throughout the centuries, we make do. We manually give our patients boluses of tube feedings hoping they tolerate it, we change out which pump gets plugged in as batteries run low, and we bring bottles of water into the room to bathe patients.
We implore our patients to survive. We will it with all our experience, skills, and prayer. We monitor their BP and regulate their breathing. We clean their faces and rub their backs. We hold our patients' hands and look into their eyes above our N95 masks and through our face shields and think of what more can be done to help save them. When a patient is taken off the ventilator, we celebrate. They beat the odds and got better. We won this battle. When a patient dies, we mourn for them and silently cry.
No visitors are allowed in the hospital. Our patients fight this virus without family. They die without their loved ones. Yet, they aren't alone. We become their family, their friends. We feel their frailty, we become their world. We tell them they'll get better, that they'll see their family again. We tell them to fight.
As experts and politicians go on TV and talk about events inside the hospital, a curious phenomenon is occurring. The public is learning about what it is to be a nurse. They hear about PPE, ventilators, exhausted nurses, and even sores on our faces from wearing N95 masks all day. We attempt to take the time to listen for the cheers every night at 7 p.m. It's an amazing experience. I've stood in the street and cried as feelings of gratitude overwhelm me.
Plans change, but one thing is certain. We share these cheers with our patients. We're in this war together and we fight on together. This isn't just the year of the nurse anymore, 2020 is also the year of the patient.
Peggy Collins is a nurse clinician at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York, N.Y.