Numbers have been declining, face mask mandates rescinded, and I try to be hopeful. I haven’t taken care of a COVID positive patient in two weeks! I want this to end more than you know. I want life to return to normal. I want my outgoing husband to go back to ministering to strangers in love, and I desire for my daughters to play with other children without concern or worry. It’s not fear, you see, that drives me, but rather things I saw and cannot forget.
A few months ago I received my first dose of the COVID vaccine. I felt hopeful. In all honesty, I cried happy tears. I wanted an end to this pandemic more than anyone could ever imagine. I posted a picture to Instagram of me smiling with my vaccination card. A stranger commented about my lack of faith, and my obvious succumbing to fear. That broke my heart.
This morning my husband and I talked about it on the front porch. Before children wake, with coffee in hand, we’re allowed these private conversations. I mentioned how I wanted to see him engage with neighbors more readily, like he used to do. You see, the past year has not just impacted me. It had also scarred my best friend, my spouse who heard my pain after a long day at the ICU bedside. He knew the truth of it.
As we spoke of hope, of how things seemed to be getting better, I was taken back to this past summer. June and July of 2020. I had been working in a major, metropolitan area of Central Florida, and we had been hit brutally by the pandemic.
I said to my husband, “I remember reaching that breaking point where I knew we couldn’t take much more. There were more patients than we could handle. Every shift another person died. A woman my age with young children like us died. Then that man with daughters the same age as ours. Followed by the death of a coworker’s spouse. I took care of him. I helped her put on the PPE right before he died. I remember thinking that could be me, losing you.”
He listened in that understanding way of his. Then I added, “I think a part of my depression at the worst of it had a lot to do with public perception. I would try to escape to social media to take my mind off what I was seeing at work, but I was met with people who made light of the very thing that was breaking me.”
I had to take a big step away from the world during all of this. I didn’t fear a virus, but I did fear the way my heart was feeling towards others who could not fathom what I was going through. Here I was crying into the phone with family who couldn’t hold their dying loved one, and the rest of the country was complaining about not having prom or how uncomfortable a thin piece of paper felt on their face for 20 minutes a day. I rubbed ointment of the reddened bridge of my nose, scarred by a respirator I wore for 13 hours a day, and I rubbed my bruised ego even harder.
It took months, and I mean months, for me to let go of the hurt and offense I felt at others negating my pain. I had to lay it all down and be grateful that they didn’t have to know the things I knew, see the things I had seen, or remember the trauma that could still pop up unexpected as I sat on my porch drinking coffee.
I have forgiven the offense, but I cannot forget the trauma I experienced. I know I’m not alone in this. I think of the wonderful, brave men and women, doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, and other healthcare workers who served alongside me during the worst of it. We all had that hollow-eyed look, at the time, and I think even now are like a feral cat hesitantly approaching a bowl of food left in the garage. We want the good news. We want the numbers to go down, and a return to normalcy. Yet we can’t forget. The death, the hopelessness. We were supposed to save lives, yet there was a time where nothing we did worked. If you entered the COVID ICU, your chances of leaving it alive were slim to none. It’s not supposed to work like that.
I’m back on social media, and it’s about the same. It hasn’t changed, but I have. I realize I cannot change anyone’s mind. I cannot be a voice of reason or experience to anyone who doesn’t want to hear me. I let it go, as my daughter’s favorite princess would say. Opinions are still strong, and people like to voice them. People have their opinions on masks and vaccinations, and I won’t try to change that.
I would only say this. Don’t belittle what someone else decides to do, or God-forbid, question their belief system or faith. In 2020 there was this saying, “we’re all in this together.” While I could appreciate the sentiment, it just wasn’t true. We all experienced the COVID-19 pandemic, but exactly how it impacted us was very different. We were not together in the differing traumas we experienced. I didn’t suffer through financial hardship. I kept my job the entire time. Those who didn’t have money to pay their bills experienced a trauma I cannot relate to, but it’s also a reciprocal relationship. I saw things at the critical care bedside that the average person cannot fathom. That is why I try now to not be offended anymore. Others cannot understand my trauma, and I cannot understand theirs. I didn’t have family die. I suffered depression and anxiety, but not as much as I’m sure others did. I try to remind myself of that.
If someone continues to wear a mask when the mandate has been lifted, that’s their prerogative. If someone wants to wear their mask outdoors or in their car, with no other people in sight, that is their decision. You cannot know what they personally experienced the past year. Keep that in mind. If you’re totally against the COVID vaccine, I respect your personal decision, but I would encourage you to do the same. Every ICU nurse I worked with got the vaccination. Our work didn’t force us to do this. The trauma we experienced did. So, if I could offer any friendly advice as mandates and restrictions ease, it would be this. Don’t lessen someone else’s trauma simply because you didn’t experience it in the same way. Instead be grateful that you can have the perspective you do. Some of us, like myself, wish we could forget.