People often comment on how they don’t understand how nurses and doctors can keep working in the ER when things like coronavirus are so overpowering and devastating, as well as risky to deal with. “Aren’t you afraid?”, they often ask. And in a word, the answer is, “Yes, I am.” We all are. But fear is not a bad thing. It can be very good. It heightens our senses and keeps us on our game. It helps us be creative and think outside the box. It forces us to stretch our resources and trust each other as well as be trustworthy to the person next to us. Fear places us in a vulnerable position and takes away petty, judgmental attitudes that otherwise hinder great performances.
If you look back in history there have always been unexpected and scary things happening, and there have always been nurses stepping up and stepping in. It must’ve been terrifying for Florence Nightingale in the Crimean war, but she and the other nurses marched on through and got the job done. It must’ve been horrifying in 1918 during the great influenza epidemic where over 100 million people died, but nurses were there despite the fear. The nurses of World War II volunteered their services and ended up in prisoner of war camps. Soldiers in every war through history served with nurses who stood up to the fear that surely existed.
Some of us remember the first HIV cases that presented to our hospitals in 1985. How very scary it was to deal with a disease that we knew nothing about, but we did it. A few years ago, Ebola tried to scare the world, but the nurses were right there, suiting up, adjusting routines and figuring out what changes had to be made to beat the thing that was trying to beat us. Now COVID-19 is shifting our focus in yet another direction and forcing us to find ways to protect our patients, our families, and ourselves.
So, we do it. We change direction. We adapt to what’s needed, and we figure it out. Then we educate our community on how to do the same thing. For many years, I carried scissors and a little penlight in my pocket, and I wore my stethoscope around my neck. Now, I wear double facemasks, goggles over my eyeglasses, gowns over my clothes, and have a big plastic head shield that looks like a welder’s helmet at the ready. I carry my stethoscope in my gloved hand because I don’t want to wrap contamination around my neck.
I wear another layer of clothing under my scrubs so I can peel a layer off in the parking lot before I get into my car. I change clothes again in my garage before going into my house to take a very hot shower and apply Neosporin to the bruises on my face that the N-95 mask has caused from being worn for 12 hours straight. I decompress and I sleep before I get up and go out to do it all again. I don’t dwell on the daily changes too much because every day becomes a new normal.
A regular day for a nurse can range from completely calm to the hectic ravages of a pandemic like COVID-19, requiring back to back intubations and praying that an ICU bed becomes available. It doesn’t matter what the challenge is, we are there to deal with it. At that moment, we don’t ask ourselves why we do it, we just do it. It’s nursing. It truly calls us, and we answer that call, every day, every time. Because when we succeed in improving a patient outcome, facilitating healing, or saving a life, we know our efforts are worth it.
Lately, people are calling us heroes, and thanking us for our service. It sounds a bit strange when someone says it to me. It’s not how I see myself.
Sure, nurses like to make jokes about superpowers, wearing a cape, and like anyone else, we enjoy having the value of our skills recognized. We take great pride in what we do.
The truth is, we get up every morning and see the same face in the mirror. We pack our lunch, get in the car and go to the hospital because caring for our patients and community is who we are and what we do. No matter what the world throws at us, we will be there. We will deal with it and we will meet the needs of the day, because in the end, it’s not about being a hero and it’s not about fear, it’s just another day at the office.
Written by: Cynthia Martinez BSN, RN, CEN, CPEN