With a bursting ICU, a nurse finds herself facing down COVID-19

As a registered nurse working in the neonatal special care nursery of a large community hospital, I know what it is to care for critically ill babies and to respond to emergencies.

Caring for tiny, fragile patients is familiar territory for me. And no matter how stressful, I feel equipped to handle whatever comes my way.

In fact, like me, most of the nurses on my unit have worked in the specialty for at least 20 years and are comfortable with all we are called to do.

That all changed last spring when my unit was tapped to assist our hospital’s growing number of COVID-19 patients.

Suddenly, news that had been a distant reality in the nursery became all too real. The nursery is isolated from the rest of the hospital, so my nursing colleagues and I had thought we could avoid contact with COVID-19 patients.

We started to hear reports that ICU staff were stressed and worked beyond capacity. We wondered how we could help our overwhelmed colleagues. Along with a cadre of volunteers, we packed up baskets of snacks, drinks, and self-care items to give to the intensive care team.

Challenged to a New Reality with COVID-19

We soon learned our contribution would not end there. The changes were just beginning.

We were told we would now be temporarily reassigned (or float) to the ICU and the other units with heavy COVID-19 patient loads when our nursery population was low.

Talking about our experiences and fears helped us feel less alone.

On my first day of floating service, I saw my name on the assignment board with ICU next to it. I felt a knot of fear in the pit of my stomach and pure panic. I had worked exclusively with nursery patients for decades and had never cared for an adult patient, much less one who was critically ill.

As much as I wanted to help, I felt afraid and unsure I would be up for working in intensive care. I wondered whether wearing a mask and gown would really protect me. That thought was compounded by fear of contracting COVID-19 and spreading it to my family and friends.

Nonetheless, those of us who were assigned to float donned our PPE: double masks, paper gowns, gloves, hair coverings, and plastic face shields.

I was not prepared for what I saw. Most patients required a ventilator, and all needed several IV pumps. Every available inch of patient rooms was occupied by machines. Staff entering the isolation rooms were cautioned to make each contact as brief as possible.

Facing Fear and Finding Encouragement

The care, compassion, courage, and resilience I witnessed during my floating service moved me to tears. Each day brought challenges and changes. Fear of contracting COVID-19 had to be pushed aside so we could do our work.

The encouragement and appreciation I received from my ICU colleagues helped keep my fear at bay as I grew more comfortable that I could handle everything I was being given to do.

Back in the nursery, my colleagues and I leaned on one another for encouragement. Each time one of us had floated to the ICU, we shared our experience with the team and received their love and support. Talking about our experiences and fears helped us feel less alone and gave us the strength we needed to keep going back.

Spiritual self-care practices helped too. 

My daily prayer and meditation time helped keep me positive and confident. My devotional readings, including Daily Word, trained my thoughts on their uplifting messages.

The encouragement and appreciation I received from my ICU colleagues helped keep my fear at bay as I grew more comfortable that I could handle everything I was being given to do. Even though my fear of contracting COVID-19 never went away, I was able to push past it.

Meeting Myself Again

Several weeks after my time in the ICU began, I started to see the sickest patients recovering. I felt overjoyed to see them finally off ventilators, taking their first unassisted breaths and sips of water. I was blessed witnessing families reunite. I felt happy hearing celebratory music over the hospital PA system each time a breathing tube was removed and, best of all, when a patient was ready for discharge.

The theme from the movie Rocky and U2’s “Beautiful Day” were played when these milestones were reached, and they will always hold special meaning for me.

My time working with COVID-19 patients was coming to an end, which was a relief. But if I am called to duty again, it will be my honor to serve.

Contributing to the care of patients during this extraordinary time pushed me out of my comfort zone and showed me a part of myself I didn’t know existed. I realized that the gifts I admired in my colleagues are within me too. They are compassionate, courageous, and resilient.

And so am I.

This article originally appeared in Daily Word® magazine.

About the Author

Christine Drohan, R.N., has spent her career caring for newborns and their families. She lives and works on Boston’s North Shore in Massachusetts.


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