Last night my family and I drove to pickup dinner. I had asked my husband if he still felt uncomfortable taking our young daughters into a public restaurant, and he had been quick to say, “yeah, I don’t want to do that.”
The numbers had gone down, but that did little to change the routine we had carried since April. I’m very honest with my spouse about my work, and as such, he suffered from the same problem I did. We knew too much. There was no way in hell we could be blissfully ignorant, and I don’t mean that offensively. I truly wish I could forget this year.
As we pulled up to the restaurant to get our curbside pickup I noticed the large group of people sitting outdoors. The tables weren’t spaced like they had been just a month prior, and people milled about inches from other groups, laughing, smiling, not a mask in sight.
“That doesn’t look like continued social distancing to me,” I said to my spouse, pointing towards the outdoor dining.
The thing was, I didn’t want to be the social distancing police! I didn’t want to see pictures of church gatherings on Facebook and wonder why no one wore a mask. I didn’t want to cringe at friends starting to gather again, throw parties, and enjoy life. I didn’t want to be wary of strangers. I didn’t want to worry about my daughters drifting over to play with some new kids at the pool. I wanted everything the way it used to be, but I couldn’t for the life of me forget the past four months. I just couldn’t.
For nurses and other healthcare professionals who have been in hotspot areas of the COVID-19 pandemic, I think we’ve received injuries that are invisible. We’re nursing wounds no one can see, and the scars we carry are still raised and angry. So while a large part of society has basically forgotten a pandemic was here, nurses are still trying to catch their breath.
I think of a skittish cat, jumping with shackles raised at every tiny sound. I think of someone who has been abused, how they’re always suspicious for when the next hand will be raised to harm them. It wasn’t fear that griped me, but rather an awareness of what the virus could do. For so many people COVID-19 was like a really bad cold, or maybe the flu, but for the hundreds of patients I had seen in an inpatient, critical care setting, it was a death sentence. All that people with no hands-on experience could say about the virus was that its mortality rate wasn’t that high, but you know who I never heard say that? Those of us at the bedside the past four months, sweating profusely in our respirators, while we pumped aggressively on someone’s chest to help their heart restart. The reason you didn’t hear that from us? Because 90% (or more) of those patients did not live. Last I knew, our hospital had tried to save over 200 people, without success. We did everything humanly possible. The virus is that bad. For the families of those two hundred and something lost, statistics for survival rate meant very little. For those of us who had cared for them, it meant even less.
So, here we are with case numbers declining, but I still don’t feel comfortable allowing my children to go to a restaurant or play with other kids in the neighborhood. To me, it’s life and death, and until someone can tell me what makes one person just get a scratchy throat, and the next guy (with similar age and health) be unable to survive, I must remain the way I am. I cannot help it. My poor husband, who has seen my defeat amidst so much death, he cannot help it either. We’re still over here self-isolating, wearing masks in public, and social distancing when we do get out.
Today my husband said, “I hope they’re wrong. I mean, it doesn’t have to get bad again, right?!”
You see, the healthcare field, based on their knowledge and models, has their own predictions for the next few months. Those of us knee-deep in the muck of this novel virus are like the skittish cat I mentioned. We’re waiting for flu season 2020. It will be like the two tropical storms converging, but when COVID couples with flu, it will be a level 5 we fear. I don’t want to listen to projections, but I try to be realistic.
Y’all, I don’t know if it will ever be the same. I don’t know if I will ever be the same. I’m so aware of germ transmission at this point, I’m surprised the skin on my hands isn’t falling off from hand sanitizer and washing them. Today I let my daughters play with two little girls at the public pool. Then I spent the next twenty minutes praying silently for God’s hedge of protection around them, worried I had made the wrong decision. I don’t want to be that mom, but I’m that nurse. I just can’t seem to be any other way.
I’m not alone, y’all. I cannot unsee the frightened look in a patient’s eyes before we stuck a breathing tube down his throat. I cannot forget the fact that although I wanted him to live, he didn’t. I can’t erase the images of the handful of critical care patients who did leave my floor alive, but did so forty pounds lighter, unable to do the things they had done prior to being a COVID survivor, some with holes in their neck to keep breathing. I think back to when I was active duty military after 9/11. At some point, as we continued to receive soldiers from The War on Terror, I grew so very tired of seeing young men (boys, really) with only one limb remaining, or their face mangled. I just wanted the war to end. I think your civilian healthcare workers of 2020 are feeling much the same. We’re tired, we’re anxious, and we’re depressed. We’re overly protective of our families, but we’re also happy to be alive. We’re in need of a break, and even though the case numbers are on the downtrend for now, we don’t really believe the end is even close. We can’t catch a break, and our patients can’t catch their breath. It’s an ugly scene for bedside nursing, and so many of us will never be the same.
When you say your prayers tonight, try and remember your frontline workers. We feel like we’ve been forgotten. And although we’d keep doing what we do even without accolades or good vibes, I personally covet your prayers for my team. This year has been traumatic, and I don’t think it’s something we can ever forget.