When I pull into my garage after my 13-hour shift, the first thing I do is strip off my scrubs. I throw everything I’m wearing into the washing machine, turn it to the sanitize setting, and start it up. My shoes never come into the house. I walk through the house naked, straight to the shower, trying not to touch anything along the way.
I’m a critical care nurse in southwestern Washington state. In the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), we have two patients at a time. It takes a lot of time and focus to care for patients in critical condition. These days, at least one of my patients is usually being treated for COVID-19
So when I get home after 13 hours in the hospital, my first priority is to keep my house and my family safe.
My youngest daughter is usually waiting for me to get home. She’s been home from school for several weeks now. Her older siblings watch her when I’m at work. But like everyone else, her routine has been interrupted and she’s trying to understand what’s going on. She’s a snuggler in normal times, and now she’s desperate for some extra attention. It breaks my heart to tell her “Don’t touch me until I shower.”
You know how you’re scrubbing your hands more thoroughly than you ever have before? I need to do that to my whole body.
When I’m finally clean and she snuggles up next to me, I wonder if I scrubbed hard enough, and whether I’m already sick but just not showing symptoms.
That fear grows every time I go into work. Because every day, there are more patients with COVID-19 filling the beds.
This crisis is unlike anything I’ve seen in my ten years as a critical care nurse.
And as the number patients with COVID-19 grows, we have fewer and fewer resources to keep ourselves safe while we treat them.
We don’t have N95 masks anymore.
We’re issued single-use surgical masks now. We’re lucky that my hospital still has enough to give us one for each patient, but instead of disposing of them after each use, we have to keep each one for the full shift. We’re supposed to hang them outside the door of each room now. But soon, like hospitals all over the state and around the country, we’ll only have enough to give each of us a single mask per shift unless more supplies arrive.
The hospital says more N95 masks and surgical masks are on the way, but no one knows when, or how many.
Meanwhile, officials are telling us if the masks run out we can just wear a bandana like some Wild West outlaw and that “should” be enough to keep us safe.
Tell me: if the nurse caring for your mom or your grandpa was wearing a bandana instead of a mask, would you feel safe? How would you feel if your mom was in the ICU after a car wreck and the nurse caring for her was wearing a bandana? What if you didn’t know whether the nurse was sick?
Every day, the risk is higher and higher that health care workers will contract the virus while we’re trying to save sick patients. We worry we’re bringing it home to our own families. We worry that without proper PPE we could be cross-contaminating rooms.
I’ve already had multiple coworkers who had to self-isolate because they showed symptoms, but there’s no clear protocol for testing — not even for healthcare providers. Without proper PPE or clear testing guidelines, nurses, therapists, doctors, techs, maintenance staff, certified nurse assistants, radiologists and the rest of our health care team will get sick.
If many of us get sick, the crisis will go from bad to worse quickly.
While we’re fighting this pandemic, we still have to care for everyday emergencies. And those patients are at increasing risk, too.
Some days I have a COVID-19 patient on a ventilator in one room, and in the next room I’m caring for an 85 year-old grandfather who’s just had a stroke. Without proper PPE, the risk that the infection follows me grows.
This isn’t a tomorrow problem, or a next week problem. It’s a right now problem.
I’ve dedicated my life to this profession. Like so many others, I’m on the front lines. We’re doing everything we can. But if we can’t flatten this curve, our entire system will be overwhelmed. And if we can’t get proper PPE to the frontline workers — not just nurses, but everyone from doctors to janitorial staff — who keeps our hospitals running, caregivers will start getting sick and then we’re in real trouble.
Give us a fighting chance. Your family’s life. Your life. My life. They all depend on it.