Three years ago. Wow. Looking at the black and white photo of my face, I feel… empty. Sometimes emotions are like that. It’s not a void of emotions, but rather an onslaught. Too many to comb through and pick just one.
This week the hospital I’m at put out a policy stating we didn’t have to wear masks anymore. After three years of wearing them constantly! After a shift without one, I felt so strange. Every time I rose from my computer I felt naked. I felt as if I was doing something wrong. I felt afraid, even. Like, shouldn’t I wear it anyway?! I saw other nurses with their masks still on the full, twelve hours. My comrades who remembered.
I cannot explain the emotions to you if you weren’t there, but I’ll try. It’s trauma in its purest form. I told my therapist that it reminded me of the pain I had seeing armless, legless, faceless Marines come into my care as a Navy Corpsman. It wasn’t war three years ago, like it had been in Iraq, but in a way it was. It felt that way. So many of my friends, family, and acquaintances couldn’t wait for masks to be a memory, but for the beside, ICU nurses, they were more than paper. They were more than a mandate. They were life. And that sounds silly saying it out loud, yet we clung to what we hoped would protect us.
In the beginning of the pandemic, we saw far too many people die. At the beginning, it seemed like they all died. My ICU at the time kept track of the deaths, and in nine months I saw 263 slip away. It did not matter what we did to try and make them stay.
263 doesn’t seem like a lot of people if you’re looking at national averages or through a political lens, but to those who wore respirators, goggles, gowns, and gloves, it’s too many. Each patient had a name, they were loved, and they were missed. They weren’t allowed to stay on an earth where people would become angry at a medical community trying to help. If they were, would they have stood up for men and women like me who only wanted the lucky folks outside of the trenches to believe us when we said it was bad?! I think so.
I think the immigrant, with frightened eyes, rapid breathing, and no understanding of the English language would have managed, to translate, “they saved me!” But he can’t, because we didn’t. He was my first, personal death to Covid-19.
So many would follow. The guy who through struggling gasps would tell his wife via phone, “I’ll talk to you soon,” had been the end of me. I had made eye contact with a fellow nurse, through perspiration and plastic shielding, eye contact that agreed sadly on a mental level, “no, sir, you won’t.” And he didn’t. I couldn’t take it as personal anymore after that. I just went on auto. We all did. Doing all the things, that meant nothing to combat that virus, and meant even less to communities who said we were stretching and fabricating the numbers.
It hurts too much to say much more. By the time other strains were rapidly killing middle-aged people like myself, I had completed insulated myself from a world that rolled its eyes at me. Yet, I still tried to help. I can remember trying to convince the man, three years my junior, why he needed to prone to get his oxygen levels up, while he groaned in broken, struggling exhalations that Covid wasn’t real.
I’m glad things are better now (in terms of virology), and we can finally have the option to drop the masks that protected us. But in someways, some things are worse. The pandemic didn’t just kill fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, and friends; it killed the community of togetherness that had helped so much in my previous, frontline battles after 9/11. Where did those people go? The ones who said, together we are better, and we can stand against this. It was replaced by factions. Factions made up of those who three years later are hesitant to drop a mask because of the things they saw, and those who never would wear them anyway, because they didn’t see the things I can’t forget.
The scars on my nose and cheeks faded, but the other wounds, they’re incredibly harder to dull away.
Sue Murphy says
I’m not a nurse or a medical professional. I have never watched a person die from Covid. But I have seen numerous neighbors succumb in the past three years. I have family, medical professionals, who have had it 1,2 3, 4 times. I have faithfully worn a mask for three years. I have asthma and heart disease. Often, I have been the only person in Walmart with one on. Both of my elderly parents have/had heart disease. I have watched nurses and doctors dramatized by what they saw daily. I heard and seen the weariness. Both of my parents were hospitalized multiple times in 2021. It dawned on me hospitals were far safer than Walmart and the gas station. I have well educated friends who refused vaccines and do to this day, because 1) is just a type of flu and 2) it was politicized and demonized and it would change our DNA. They have all had it. It makes me want to scream. My PCP recently said it was time to let the mask go. He said if you are in the store, someone coughs, put it on. He carries one as do I now in my pocket. It scares me. My Mom is scared to go without it. I feel your fear. Thank you for your service as well as you caring as a nurse.
As a fellow medical professional, I feel the same way. Thank you for putting it into words far more eloquently than I could have done.
Lisa Pierce says
As a former nurse, now immune compromised and 63 yrs young, I feel you girl. For the first time in my life I was afraid. I was also kinda ashamed that I was glad to no longer be a working nurse.
I’ve had many family members who have had Covid in the last six months. I understand that it’s not as deadly now as it was in the beginning but how do we know that it won’t turn into that variant again?
I have spent many nights in prayer for God to take away the fear and in general He has, but sometimes I can feel that tug of fear rising, especially when my 43year old daughter was very sick and I couldn’t go to her. I would have but she wouldn’t allow it.
Thank you for all you and your fellow medical professionals did and are still doing. You may not have saved every life but you comforted them, cared for their needs and kept them from dying alone. That is worthy of praise, gratitude and a heart felt ‘thank you!’ God bless you always Brie!