A New York City nurse reflects on "peak-week" in a COVID unit.
The “peak-week”, as I call it, was one of the hardest weeks of my life. I worked myself into exhaustion and sickness that week.
At one time I had around 14 patients. I was so tired and weak from being on my feet 11 hours straight in PPE—which covered my whole face and body—that one of our more lucid patients insisted I sit down on her bed and take a break.
Sweat, which is impossible to wipe away under an N-95, poured into my mouth with such ferocity that it was choking me. I remember looking at my patient and seeing a familiar look on her face—I had seen it a few times on my mother’s face, when she was particularly worried about me in years past. I was glad my sweet patient could not see my face, drenched in sweat. I knew without my mask she would see my desperation and agony mirroring hers.
I sat briefly, but soon got back up because I still had 5 patients to see before leaving. I also knew that I was risking my health by remaining in a patient’s room longer than necessary.
I softened my eyes and looked at her to let her see that I was OK, and I continued my rounds. That day I did not get out of the hospital until after 8 PM. Over 13 hours on my feet with a single 45-minute break broke me, and I sat in my car crying until well after 10 PM. I couldn’t summon the energy to drive home. I felt sick and exhausted.
That night my fever spiked at 101 ºF. My chest tightened up, and I fell ill.
I slept for 4 days straight, then right back to work once my fever went down. That is just the way it is. I am awaiting test results for the virus. The peak in New York City was hell on earth.
After the peak, things are still very difficult at the hospital. New patients come in daily. A medical assistant who was working in our unit was just admitted to it. The nurses and staff watched in dismay as she was wheeled in by the EMTs. We rarely saw her out of PPE. It was a truly sad moment when she gave us a weak smile as she was pushed toward her room.
I looked at her and saw myself. She was scared and defeated, just a week before standing in my shoes working under the immense weight of exposure to the pathogen that is causing this chaos. The ever-repeating thought of, “if we don’t do this, who will?” swirling around our minds as we race from room to room in an attempt to keep this under control.
There is no control with this virus. We don’t know what will happen to many patients who desaturate at home and have no one there to help them. We work under the premise that what we are doing is just keeping these people alive until the virus decides to let them live or take them as the next victim. The air has palpable fear in the hot zone. It is as if the suffocating reality of the unknown is drowning both us and our patients. It's true that we are fighting this on the frontine like it is a war. Because it is a war.
Jeanne-Claire Fink is a senior patient-care associate in the Northwell Health System, in New York City. Fink was completing her schooling in nursing when the outbreak started, and was recruited to work in a nursing role on the frontlines in a COVID unit.