Published On May 27, 2020
AS A REGISTERED NURSE IN MANHATTAN, I saw the coming of the pandemic firsthand. I’d seen the overflow of patients in the ER, the staff burdened more than we could have ever imagined. We went about our tasks with a minimum of protection and using the same mask shift after shift.
With my own severely compromised immune system—a run-in with stage-4 cancer nine years ago—I knew I was personally at high risk. I had lost, among other things, my spleen, the gatekeeper of pathogens. But I did my work because it was a time when every one of us was needed. When my own coughing and respiratory distress began, the decision to walk into our emergency room was something I did not take lightly.
The last thing I wanted to do was waste the staff’s time or become another burden for the already encumbered. Still wearing my scrubs, I left my unit. I walked into the ER. I was convinced and half hopeful the doctors would tell me my symptoms were psychological, a response somehow to these rows of patients experiencing their signature distress. But after my own abnormal CT scan and dropping oxygen saturation, I was admitted into an isolation room.
I’ve been hospitalized a hundred times during my battle with cancer; being a patient was not new to me. But the thought of this particular contagious illness terrified me. Awaiting results from my nasal swab, I thought about the people on ventilators, and about those who had already died, and I wondered whether I would ever see my family or my dog again. Every time I attempted to cough, it felt as if a knife was stabbing my lungs. I looked out my hospital window to an empty, dark avenue and alternated between being mentally strong and agonizingly depressed.
The clinicians who took care of me couldn’t have been more compassionate, despite their obvious fatigue. I profusely apologized for being another patient, and each time they told me not to worry. It was curious to watch them, knowing what I knew—that they were moving through their shifts hour by hour and saved their crying for when they got home.
At the same time my own nurse manager was texting me: When would I be back to work?
Finally, a pulmonologist entered my room, his hazel eyes full of sympathy. “Your COVID test came back—negative,” he said. But even looking at him through his mask and shield, I could tell he wasn’t smiling. He explained that my right lung had several nodules and then asked if I had heard of nontuberculous mycobacteria. I only knew of it in AIDS patients. This rare lung infection had somehow set up a home in my frail lungs and would require a year or more of antibiotics and potentially surgery. He said it was an unfortunate time to be diagnosed with dangerous lung disease, when pulmonologists were in such high demand.
He wanted to send me home as quickly as possible so I wouldn’t catch the virus or anything else. “But I’m a nurse,” I said, to which he just shrugged his shoulders.
I went home to my empty apartment. Messages from my boss continued: “So do you have COVID-19?” I somehow felt guilty that I didn’t; it would have been easier to explain. It still hurt to breathe, but in a way, knowing that it wasn’t caused by the virus stranded me very much on my own.
When you are working on the wards, you feel you have a bit of control—over your life, over a virus we still know so little about. And frankly, for health care workers, it’s during times like this that we thrive. We step up to assist the helpless, to aid those in crisis.
What do nurses like me do when we aren’t able to help? When we’re benched for the season, watching from the sidelines? My first job is to get better, of course. But beyond that, all I can do, all most of us can do, is send my love and support to my peers who continue to show up.
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