CHICAGO — My sister the nurse held back tears on the front line of the pandemic. The orthopedic surgical unit in the hospital where she works got repurposed to care for people sickened by the new coronavirus. Patients she’d help get back on their feet with newly installed hips have been replaced by folks struggling to breathe thanks to COVID-19.
On Sunday, her third 12-hour shift in a row, my sister started her workday cussing at whoever it was refusing to give her a N95 respirator because hospital administrators are rationing them because of a nationwide shortage.
Between 7 a.m. and 7:30 p.m., there were five “Code Blue” calls — that’s when a patient suddenly stops breathing. One of my sister’s patients, a man infected with COVID-19, died.
When the day was done, my sister wept.
She posted a picture of her tear-soaked face on Instagram.
“We don’t have adequate equipment to protect our safety or to protect our families. … I became a nurse to take care of the sick, encourage and bring light into someone’s life when they are lying sick in a hospital bed. But I did not become a nurse to be unprotected when there is a pandemic,” she wrote. “I have to fight, yell and argue with people to give me and my co-workers the proper mask, and even then the masks don’t fit right. … We shouldn’t have to do that.”
When I saw it, I cried, too.
But what can a big brother do?
My sister is not alone.
After a dozen nurses at University of Illinois Hospital tested positive for COVID-19, the head of the state nurses union told me that, as a matter of practice, certain hospital administrations in Illinois are telling their nurses to wear common surgical masks while treating patients presenting COVID-19 symptoms, sometimes based on questionable recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Hospitals are concerned about inventory, so they’re doing everything they can to conserve the supplies they have. You’ve got the CDC saying if you don’t have a mask, wear a bandana. Obviously, a bandana does nothing, and some studies say it’s harmful and makes it more likely for someone to get infected,” said Alice Johnson, the state nurses union head.
“All these things: Not using PPEs (personal protective equipment) in the right manner, using a lower standard of PPE, wearing it too long or sanitizing and re-using it — are to preserve supplies. What we’re saying is you’ve got to protect your health care workers.”
Over the last few days, I spoke with my sister and a few other nurses recently drafted to treat the surge of COVID-19 patients without proper safety gear — specifically, those N95 respirators that the hospital only provides doctors.
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They’re terrified about the shortage in personal protective equipment that puts them at risk.
They’re angry the hospital won’t put them up in hotel rooms after their shift to protect their families from possibly being infected.
They don’t understand why Target cashiers are getting “hazard pay,” but when they brought that up to hospital management, the reply was: “This is what you signed up for.”
They asked me not to identify them, or the hospital where they work, because they don’t want to risk getting fired. And despite the dire need for health care professionals, that’s what could happen. A co-worker who spoke up found that out the hard way, the nurses told me.
But they want people to know that last week, hospital management required two nurses to share an N95 mask while treating COVID-19 patients.
The form-fitting respirators didn’t fit each of them equally. The nurses also said they were being told a surgical mask was protection enough to treat coughing coronavirus patients.
“A simple surgical mask is really thin. If you spray anything on them, you can taste it, inhale it,” one nurse said. “Meanwhile, doctors are wearing N95s, and they’re telling us not to go in patient rooms without wearing one.”
No wonder my normally subdued sister dropped the F-bomb when the hospital’s controller of N95 masks balked at giving her one.
“They’re giving these masks to the doctors and telling nurses you just need a surgical mask. How is that right? Some doctors go in patient rooms, but we’re in those rooms all the time,” my sister said. “We help them get up to go to the bathroom. We change them when they have an accident. We give them medication. And we’re not protected.”
When I relayed those details to Johnson, she sighed.
“Your sister needs to be wearing an N95 mask,” she said. “If we don’t change what we’re doing immediately all of our lives are at risk, and there’s going to be nobody to care for us.”
For my sister and her co-workers, their own health is just part of their worry.
One nurse isolates herself from her family after every shift.
Another strips off her clothes in the garage after work before coming into the house.
My sister heads straight to the shower, puts her clothes in a plastic bag, washes them in hot water and goes to bed.
But she can’t sleep not knowing if she got infected with the coronavirus on her shift, because during this crisis hospital administrators are making a devastating trade-off necessary to conserve N95 masks that are a scarce commodity, which in turn lessens their protective ability and puts nurses like her at risk anyway.
“I’m exhausted, probably dehydrated, anxiety ridden, I wake up in the middle of the night worrying about my family, my co-workers (in) the ICU, ER and other units with (coronavirus) patients,” she said. “I worry about them all and I’m scared. … I want to hug and kiss and snuggle with my kids and husband, and they won’t come near me.”
For the next couple days, my sister said she’s going to nap and make sure the kids do their homework. On Wednesday, she’ll bake a cake for her eldest son’s birthday that we’ll celebrate on video chat.
On Thursday, she’ll go back to work.
What else is a nurse supposed to do?
Mark Konkol, recipient of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting and Emmy-nominated producer, was a producer, writer and narrator for the “Chicagoland” docu-series on CNN. He was a consulting producer on the Showtime documentary, “16 Shots.”
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