New York, NY – Lily is a veteran nurse’s aide with over twenty years of hospital duty behind her. She is a short, strong woman, just five and a half feet tall, but she is toughened by her years of practice.
When you deal with angry families, impatient doctors, indifferent administrators and the wear and tear of working three 12-hour shifts in a row – over a weekend – you either change your occupation or develop a thick skin and a strong voice. She continued going to work, despite being an asthmatic and knowing that the coronavirus attacks the airways and the lungs.
Before her recent hospitalization, Lily was caring for Covid-19 patients in the ICU. There were not enough masks, not enough isolation gowns, not enough isolation rooms and not enough medications. With half the housekeeping staff out sick and hotel housekeepers laid off all around the city, the administration was refusing to hire temps from an agency to replace them.
On her latest weekend, there were only two housekeepers on duty for the whole hospital, Lily didn’t know why. She only knew that the entire intensive care unit is covered with the virus. Countertops, telephones and computer keyboards, door handles and rolling computer stations are all contaminated. She wipes down her cart and the nursing station counter top at the start of her shift, knowing Covid is in the air and raining down all around her. She doesn’t know how long it will remain sanitary.
Then she began to feel the aches. Not the aching feet and knees from long hours on her feet, but the muscle aches that wash over her whole body; the “myalgia” characteristic of a viral infection.
A Covid-19 infection.
The next day, she visited her primary physician, who prescribed Tylenol, ibuprofen and plenty of liquids. She went home to rest.
That night, Lily’s temperature reached 102. She had chills that would not abate, even after taking the non-steroidal over-the-counter meds. Her breathing was labored and she was wheezing. The rescue inhaler helped some, but did not restore normal breathing.
The next day she dragged herself to the Emergency Department. Every nursing staff member knew that a Covid-19 infection could well be fatal for an asthmatic. Her temperature in the ER was elevated and her pulse was over 100. Her chest X-ray showed left-basilar pneumonia: (infection at the base of one lungs), the classic finding in Covid-19. Her physical exam revealed wheezing upon taking a deep breath, and her oxygen saturation, even while receiving oxygen, was only 88%: well below the expected level of 100.
Since she was stable on simple oxygen delivered through her nose by cannula, they admitted Lily to a medical ward. By now it was nearly midnight. The kitchen was long closed, but a kind nurse on the ward gave her a can of liquid nutritional supplement and a cup of hot tea with lots of sugar: calories to hold her until the morning.
Throughout the night, Lily suffered multiple panic attacks. No family members were allowed to be with her. Overhead she heard the hospital operator calling a cardiac arrest. The announcements seemed to come every hour. She knelt on the floor beside her bed, trying to catch a full breath and struggling to hold back the panic, and prayed to the Lord that the hospital operator would not call her room number. She was terrified that a young physician or medical student would soon be compressing her chest as she lay pulseless and unconscious on the bed.
Lily slept not a wink that night. The float resident on call ordered an anti-anxiety medication to calm her, which helped her get through the long graveyard shift, but still brought no slumber.
In the morning, a respiratory therapist came by and measured her oxygen saturation with a portable monitor. Lily’s level had risen to 95% – an encouraging sign. The number calmed her. Maybe her condition would not deteriorate. Maybe she would survive. After breakfast she slept. No nightmare disturbed her sleep.
Discharged two days later, Lily is recovering at home. She is anxious to donate her blood to provide precious antibodies to the infected patients waiting for beds in the ER or falling into septic shock in the ICU.
Lily is eager to return to work. She will be one of the invincible warriors, immune (she prays) to the virus, able to step in when the patient goes into cardiac arrest, unafraid of exposure, confident in her skills, fortified by her faith and by her love of nursing.
This report is based on conversations with Nurse T., and her colleagues who work in an ICU in a New York hospital that serves a a largely impoverished black and Hispanic community.
Timothy Sheard, a retired RN, worked in hospitals for over 40 years. He is an author of medical mystery novels and founder of Hard Ball Press, a social justice imprint.