A nurse’s firsthand account amid the pandemic: ‘It’s not a matter of if, but when’

Written by Jessica H., an acute care registered nurse in Orange County
Photo via Daan Stevens/Unsplash

I found the usual path too hectic. The walk from the parking structure to the main hospital building was brief, but I preferred to take the back route. It was quieter, with less frenzy from the hurried feet scurrying by. The walk was just a few minutes, maybe enough for the three songs I had on repeat in my thirty-song playlist. But I preferred it that way. It was a few minutes of absorbing the flow of music before my head clogged with sterile hospital ABCs – alarms, beeps and chirps.

In the winter, ginkgo leaves showered the graveled pathway, leaving a fleeting golden carpet, as if attempting to replace the sunshine that lacked during the colder months. On those December evenings, when darkness seemed to stretch longer and my sighs grew deeper, I’d let the crisp cool air fill the tiniest branches in my lungs, almost stinging my insides.

In the fall, if my timing was right, the sun would peak through the buildings, casting shadows on the ground that seemed to stretch outwards, as if waving goodbye before the last rays hid behind the earth’s horizon.
The air was less inviting in the summer and the sun beat its rays unrelentingly on my dark uniform. But I craved those long summer days when the light bled as far into the evening as it could, sometimes leaving an encore of sorbet skies before letting night fall.

These days don’t feel quite like spring or any other season for that matter. The birds still chirp and the skies continue to boast its bluest hues, but it’s an unusual limbo. I’ve forgotten which day it is. Each walk feels the same. Is it still March? It feels like it’s been months.

Usually, during the weekdays, I’ll see an occasional crew of construction workers or visitors hurrying by. Now, I don’t run into a single person until I reach the hospital doors. I scan my badge. The doors open and the stale ventilation immediately cuts the fresh outside air. I don’t take the elevator anymore. Paranoia, I guess. So I huff and puff my way up the stairs to the fifth floor of the hospital to my unit.

I clock in. 6:55 p.m.

How many cases do we have? Do we have any positives?

They’re the first questions that everyone is eager to have answered.

Right now, almost half of the beds are empty. There are no elective surgeries. We need to keep the beds open for when cases start to rise. It feels eerily quiet.

Tonight, one of my patients is an elderly woman who suffered a stroke. I had her a few nights ago, but her recovery has remained poor. Her endearing smile has turned into a flat affect. Nothing I say can make her laugh. She has no family with her. No one does. Our hospital cut off all visitors since last week because of COVID. So I brush her matted hair and put it in a bun, sweeping away the straggling strands from her face. I put her glasses on the table next to her and put some music on the TV before stepping out of the room.

I log into my work e-mail during my break and search for the daily COVID update. We received a new shipment of N-95 masks. Gold. But how long will they last?

The night goes by. My peers remain chipper, but I can sense the anxiety slowly building. Our inbox is bombarded with constant changes in PPE and testing requirements. Our masks are locked in cabinets and we are drafted as its gatekeepers. We label plastic bags with our names to protect our single shift N95 respirators.

We are used to facing uncertainty with each shift. In a way, we thrive in it. But with COVID, we are stripped of our only securities.

2:15 a.m.

A patient who was recently admitted to our floor for shortness of breath is spiking a fever. Oxygen is 95% on room air but she is developing worsening coughs. Is it COVID? It can’t be, but it can very well be. Every respiratory issue outside of of the norm seems to funnel to COVID. Can we ask for a test? The team decides we should. It will take two days to get a result. So for now, anyone who goes in must don a surgical mask, a face shield, a gown and gloves – all valuable PPE that could be saved if the tests ran quicker. But we need to stay safe. There’s someone outside the door logging each person that comes in and out. Limit your time in there, they say. Just in case.

6:50 a.m.

The day shift crew is rolling in. I scrub the hell out of my pens, my stethoscope, my badge and my glasses. The noxious smell of disinfectant saturates my belongings. I grab a few more wipes to scrub my shoes. Did I clean enough? Should I wipe everything down again one more time? It’s my paranoia again.

I clock out. 7:38 a.m.

I get to my car, starting the next phase of my sanitation routine. I take off my hospital shoes and place them in a shoebox in my trunk. I put on some slippers. I sanitize my hands. When I get home, I remove my scrubs in the garage and change into clean clothes. I wipe down the steering wheel, seat and door handles. I sanitize my hands again. Can’t be too careful.

When I get into the house, I immediately shower. I can hear my puppy whimpering, then start barking. I used to take her out right after getting home. Not now, not anymore. I need to shower, scrub everything off. She can wait.

It’s been less than two weeks since California ramped up measures to prevent COVID from spreading. The news reports of cases in New York ring in my ears. I don’t think I’ve kept up with the news this much and this often before. Now, it seems like I can’t peel my eyes off the screen. Hospitals are drowning. Cases are surging.

Right now, we’re waiting. Is the storm coming to California? It’s not a matter of if, but when.

  1. You’re an excellent writer. I feel your fears and emotions.
    I thank God daily for servers like you and your selfless intentions. Take care of yourself .. can’t afford not to have you around. God Bless!
    Veekee Allen

  2. Jessica I feel your pain and your paranoia. I have a lot of nurses friends and I pray daily for them to be safe and all the doctors. Ever since this virus is around my prayers are not just for me and my family’s safety. It’s all for the safety of everyone that work in the hospital. And all the elderly. I asked god to keep all of you safe. You are a good writer your story is very well written. I will Say special prayer for you to be safe. God blessed you Jessica.

    Victoria from Buena Park

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