As my alarm went off at 5:30 in the morning, I felt for the first time in my career an undercurrent of fear and worry as I got up to get ready for work.
In my nursing career I have taken care of patients with influenza, pseudomonas, C. Diff, HIV, MRSA, HSV, hepatitis, and many, many more. I never felt fear or anxiety that I would be harmed while caring for these patients. I just “donned” my appropriate personal protective equipment and did my job, confident that I was healthy and if I followed the guidelines and protocols I would not get sick.
I’ve spent hours unprotected in a room with a patient who had influenza A, I just didn’t know she had it until she had been there nearly half my shift. But I didn’t get sick because my flu vaccine had worked, or my immune system had done its job. If I had gotten sick I could take Tamiflu and likely be OK in a few days.
This morning I realized that I had a new respect and understanding for law enforcement officers and front-line soldiers. They get ready for their shift knowing that any time they go on patrol, with any warrant served, any domestic violence situation, things could go horribly wrong and they could end up hurt or even dead. But what do they do? They don their PPE (bullet proof vests) and head out the door to do their jobs of keeping us safe.
This threat to us all is like nothing we have ever had to deal with before. Even the nurses and physicians who have been practicing for 30 years or more have not encountered a reality like this. No vaccine, no antibiotic or antiviral, no previous exposure to build some immunity in our bodies. I became a registered nurse so I could work in labor and delivery. I absolutely love my job.
Can you imagine a safer place in the hospital to work? Mostly healthy young women are having babies. This is usually the one place in the hospital people actually want to be. I get to experience the miracle of life on a daily basis. I get to see dads cry as they hold their new baby in their arms for the first time.
Sure, we have sad and tragic days too, but even then I feel privileged and grateful that I get to care for these families in their time of need, never fear for my safety or my life.
But a new threat has raided my state, my hospital, my entire life. I go to work not knowing if my next patient is going to be the one who infects me with a disease that could harm or kill me. And even worse, I could unknowingly bring it home to my family, and harm or kill them. I have five children, two with asthma, and I know how fragile lungs can be.
We now know many of the people who transmit the COVID-19 virus have no symptoms. None. Not a fever, not a cough, headache or even a sniffle.
It’s simply not possible for me to wear an N95 filter mask or special respirator — my bullet-proof vest, so to speak — with every patient, every 12-13 hour shift. CDC guidelines do not recommend it and it’s not in our protocol with patients who don’t show any signs they are sick. Although recently, we have read about cases of pregnant women who don’t show any symptoms of illness until after giving birth — after we’ve held their hands, wiped their foreheads, pushed with them for hours and handed them their precious child. Serious exposure to this new threat is possible simply due to the nature of our work. One would not usually expect to become critically ill after taking care of a seemingly healthy 30-year-old pregnant woman.
COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate, and it’s spreading like wildfire, threatening the lives of patients and health care workers alike. I never would have never guessed I would be on the front lines of this battle. I know my brothers and sisters across every hospital and on every unit are feeling the effects of our new reality.
So I ask everyone to please take this Illness seriously and listen to your doctor. Stay home. Wash your hands. Help others. Thank the housekeeping and food staff at the hospital. Respect security and the new visitor guidelines. Be kind to your health care providers, we really are doing the best we can.
Together we can get through this.
Amanda Poulson is a registered nurse living and working in Salt Lake City.