She’s pointing at her neck and trying to tell me something. She knows enough English to get my attention but mostly speaks Arabic so we fumble around, her husband’s voice bursting through her phone to interject, “Pain! She can’t breathe! Her heart hurts!” I don’t have time to turn on the video translator so I start gesturing to her very stable vital signs and try to explain that she has plenty of oxygen. I give up when I can’t sufficiently communicate that the uncontrollable early-pregnancy vomiting has probably just irritated her throat; this is most likely heartburn. Or anxiety. Or maybe she’s just sitting wrong. I start adjusting the stretcher, moving her torso higher as she shakes her head “no.”
I stare at her, torn between a woman who claims she can’t breathe but is clearly fine and the patient around the corner who needs to get to Labor and Delivery. I feel guilt; she is probably anxious because her link to English-speaking America is not present. Instead, he is in the car watching their kid because small children are not included in our pandemic-proof visitor policy. I watch her wiggle in the impossibly uncomfortable bed, attempting to find a place she feels better. She’s still breathing fine.
I realize I’ve wasted precious moments at the wrong bedside when those guttural, maternal sounds that precede birth echo across the hall. I’ve been frozen in place two moments too long, the “patient experience” administrator who came around last week clouding my judgment. She had wanted to make sure we were specifically asking every patient if they were “comfortable.” The endless supply of warm blankets and ice chips and phone chargers wasn’t enough evidence of our care, nor were our assessment skills, medication administrations, therapeutic conversations, education and advocacy. No matter, we aren’t scoring well enough on patient satisfaction. Using these buzzwords will hopefully remind our discharged patients that we did, in fact, care about them. Today this well-intentioned administrator hovers over my shoulder, whispering she’s uncomfortable in my ear, and I don’t know what to do.
The spell is broken when a doctor pokes her head through the curtain asking for my help. I snap out of it, frustrated, and march towards the cries of “something is coming out!” We messily deliver a baby who’s decided to slide into the world on the wrong unit, and what should have been a calm, straightforward birth has become a loud, crowded, hurried mess in a room without the privacy of a door, without the right physician, and without the right supplies.
Some days aren’t this hectic. Some days our little seven-bed OB-GYN Emergency Department is full of less pressing complaints, like those patients looking for STD testing or management of morning sickness. Some days we are urged along more quickly by pregnant women seizing, bleeding, or worse. Some days we have the staff. More often, especially lately, our nurses get sent home early because the budget doesn’t allow for them. This is fine on easy days, stressful on others.
Today is looking like one of those less-fine days as we consider the pandemic creeping through our city. We sense its approach and are growing concerned because now, on top of normal pregnancy concerns, we are starting to see pregnant women with respiratory concerns. And, unlike the adult ER on the other side of our hospital, we don’t have a separate unit to place our respiratory patients. Of the beds we do have, only two have doors. Our unit was simply not built for things like this.
We are left with both practical and theoretical questions. Where are we supposed to put down the masks and shields we’re meant to be re-using? Why does it feels like those hacking coughs are blowing straight through the curtains? We’re confused; the PPE charts make it look like we don’t need shields and gowns until our patients are considered “Persons Under Investigation” for COVID-19, but we don’t feel comfortable waiting for the moment it’s official to start wearing protective gear. We’re also wondering why we can’t do any testing. At first it was because the Health Department wasn’t testing at night. Now it’s because we are only testing inpatients. We’re concerned for the patients we’ve discharged home; they might not be sick enough for admission, but they were certainly still infectious.
All these things run through our minds and our mouths when we have two pregnant women show up at the same time, with the same complaint, just after noon. Fever and cough. Their OBGYNs sent them over, thinking we could test them; they were wrong. Nevertheless, the patients are here, they must be evaluated, so who gets the room with the door? Which nurse is going to take care of the sicker looking one and which is going to pick up the other patients? What do we do when too many sign in for one nurse to handle? My coworker dons and doffs gear, adjusts ultrasound monitors, empties full bedpans, then helps me juggle the influx.
As she’s handling masks and gowns and shields we chat about the rumors that staff have been taking protective equipment home. We discuss the new “PPE Steward” who comes around distributing packages of gear every day. Meanwhile, somehow, patients who have no respiratory complaints are wearing masks and gloves because they’re scared. How did they get those items? Do they know how to use them correctly? Don’t they know there’s a shortage? I’m scared.
All this confusion is starting to make a stressful situation seem downright unmanageable and I’m sure it’s only going to get worse. I get a headache, realize I’ve forgotten to eat, and notice I’m becoming more irritable. Naturally, this is the moment my manager realizes my performance evaluation is due. I go into her office.
She asks me to rate my job satisfaction and is disappointed in my response. I had complaints- I didn’t like the inconsistent communication about daily guideline changes. I didn’t appreciate that we care so much right now about using the word “comfortable” when we can’t get straight what masks we are or aren’t allowed to wear. I don’t like that my “goal for the year” is to obtain a new nursing certification. I obtained a more challenging one at management’s request last year but now the “hospital initiative” is to have a different one, which feels like an unfair use of my time. Mostly, I’m tired of working short and I don’t think we are paid well enough.
Somehow I make it to the end of the shift. I clock out and eat cold mac and cheese on the ride home. I strip in the garage then eat two bowls of cereal, half a bag of Cadbury eggs, bite off all my nails and watch four episodes of Girls. Eventually I fall asleep, wondering if this is what burnout feels like or if this is just a symptom of nursing in a pandemic. Maybe it’s both. Either way, none of it’s good.
This crisis has only begun to highlight those pre-existing systemic weaknesses nurses face on top of this threat to our health and that of the public. We are lost somewhere between strained nurse management and corporates who don’t understand patient care. I am left wondering who to rely on. I am dreading what comes next, because nurses are caring for the sick. We need to trust someone will be caring for us.