In early March 2020, I sat with my co-workers and manager for our daily morning huddle to discuss assignments, the conditions of our patients and related issues, as we do before each shift. That particular morning was a little different. That particular morning all we could talk about, all we could focus on, were the unknowns of COVID-19.
We knew it was coming.
By that time, COVID-19 had found its way to the United States, and many of the hospitals in our neighboring states already were consumed by the raging novel coronavirus. We were trying to brace for the impact here in Lancaster County. Our hospital was well-prepared, but we were still all very fearful.
“Can I just say something?” I asked my manager as I listened to my peers’ concerns, fears and anxieties about what was heading our way.
We were all feeling trepidation. We were all anxious and nervous about what this meant for those of us who would be caring for COVID-19 patients. At that point there was still so little known about the virus other than it was highly contagious and that it was killing people. We weren’t even wearing masks constantly at that point, and we had no clear idea of what to expect. We just felt uneasy.
“This is going to be challenging,” I remember saying. “This is going to be hard, and this ... this is going to be bad — really bad. We need to pull together so that we don’t create our own chaos. We need to be the calm in this storm so that we can be what we need to be for our patients, our families and each other.”
I wished I had something more inspiring to say, but I was scared, too.
H1N1 vs. COVID-19
As I looked around the room that March 2020 morning, I realized that I was the only person there who had worked through an outbreak like this. I was a fairly green nurse in 2009 working in the intensive care unit when H1N1 — swine flu — reared its ugly head. I remembered it being overwhelming (less so now when comparing it with this COVID-19 experience).
H1N1 was very different. From April 12, 2009, to April 10, 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that there were 60.8 million cases in the United States and 12,469 deaths because of H1N1.
Here’s some perspective. There were single weeks in January 2021 in which we lost more than 20,000 Americans.
I feel compelled to repeat that: More than 20,000 Americans — nearly double the total of all U.S. H1N1 deaths a decade ago — were dying from COVID-19 and its complications in the United States in some January weeks.
When I wrote my first column for this newspaper in December, more than 278,000 Americans had died of COVID-19. By Christmas that number rose to more than 329,000 American deaths. According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, more than 539,000 Americans now have died and there have been more than 29.6 million COVID-19 cases in the U.S.
I knew when I was talking to my peers that morning roughly a year ago that it was going to be bad. I had no idea just how bad.
COVID-19 took it all to another level.
As our lives in the community were changing in those early spring weeks in 2020, so were our lives within the hospital. Community members may have been frustrated by the changing guidance on mask-wearing, but health care workers had to deal with evolving recommendations, too.
Many health care workers changed their clothes in their garages or outdoor makeshift changing rooms. Most would not hug or kiss anyone in their family until they showered. Many slept in separate rooms from their significant others, and some even opted to stay in hotels. The fear of bringing this virus home to our families was very real.
The fear of serious illness and death was very real.
Treating people in the midst of trying to figure out this virus was even more challenging. Fighting to keep people alive, and holding their hands as they died without their families present, were emotionally exhausting. As was knowing that even when we did everything medically possible for our patients stricken with COVID-19, some were not going to survive. That feeling of hopelessness became overwhelming and all-consuming.
By August we were all feeling the physical and emotional toll of being health care workers during this pandemic. In September, my hospital began to transform a common area that all hospital staff could see. We began hanging cut-out hearts with words of encouragement for one another. What started out as a few hearts turned into a display that occupied an entire hallway.
For many staff, that hallway is the first thing they see walking in for their shifts and the last thing they see as they walk out. Those messages and words of encouragement were — and are — a welcome reminder to all of us to remain strong and hopeful.
Not long after, cut-out stars started to appear among those cut-out hearts. Each star represented a COVID-19 patient who had been discharged from the hospital. As those stars grew in numbers so did our feelings of hope. A year later, there are now 2,000 stars on that wall.
While the past year has been emotional and frustrating for everyone, I think we all can agree that we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are down and vaccinations are ramping up. Life inside and outside the hospital is beginning to feel a little more “normal.” It is like we are rounding the corner of the last mile of a grueling marathon and the finish line is nearly within view. But we still need to remain patient and vigilant, and keep moving forward — our work as a community is not done. We still need to follow health and safety recommendations, including mask-wearing and social distancing. We can’t stop short of the finish line just because we can see it ahead.
How we react to adversity and tragedy proves that we can adapt and change for the greater good and for ourselves. Our efforts show that we can find alternative ways to make things work. And celebrating the successes and memorializing the losses are a reminder we are stronger than we ever knew.
This past year has been difficult for everyone — it’s tempting for many of us to wish that it had been a year that never was. March 2020 came in like a lion, and that lion never seemed to want to leave. We were blanketed by a darkness that felt relentless at times. And while life is not completely back to normal, I think it’s safe to say we have weathered the worst of the storm. The clouds are parting, and the sun is beginning to shine through again. Hope is no longer on the horizon.
It is finally here.
Nikkee Asashon is an intensive care unit nurse in Lancaster County.