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.