I have been a registered nurse for eight years — and a nurse’s aide for eight years before that — and this COVID-19 pandemic that is sweeping the country is unlike anything I have ever seen, especially on Long Island and in New York City.
It is scary, even for nurses like me and other health care workers on the front lines battling this fast-moving, highly contagious plague where people can go from relatively good health to critical illness or even death in a matter of minutes.
We know we have to put ourselves at risk sometimes to serve our patients, but what is happening at my Long Island hospital and at others was unimaginable just a few short weeks ago. It often brings me to tears.
There are tens of thousands of COVID-19 cases in the metropolitan area and more than 2,000 deaths. As of Thursday, there were more than 9,500 COVID-19 cases in Nassau County, and more than 7,600 in Suffolk.
We need much more personal protective equipment (PPE) like N95 masks, gowns, gloves, respirators and ventilators to protect ourselves and our patients and to save lives — and not just nurses, but also aides, technicians and housekeeping staff, just to mention a few.
The federal government was extremely slow to act and we are dangerously behind where we should be. Our union, 1199SEIU, is fighting the federal government to step up and protect us and our patients by producing enough PPE.
Shortages of PPE put everyone at risk. My hospital is stretched dangerously thin on protective equipment — and at least two of my co-workers have tested positive for the virus and are in quarantine. We are limited to one N95 mask per week, when normally you would throw it away after a single use. That mask can save lives and slow the spread of this evil disease.
We are so low on plastic gowns that many of us are forced to use paper gowns or makeshift protection like kitchen aprons — and we have all seen the shocking pictures of health care workers resorting to wearing plastic garbage bags to protect themselves and their patients.
Most of us are working 12-hour shifts, which takes a toll on us and our patients.
This disease moves so rapidly it is frightening to watch.
We had one patient who literally deteriorated right before my eyes within an hour. She seemed fine but suddenly went into a downward spiral. Her oxygen levels were low and she had trouble breathing. She got worse, and we sent her to a sister hospital better equipped to deal with the most critically ill patients. I don’t know what happened to that patient, but I fear the worst. She was someone’s loved one. She was someone’s mother, or grandmother.
I cried after working to help her, and I cry every time I leave the hospital and go home to my two daughters and my two grandchildren for fear of giving them the virus, even though I do not have it.
My youngest grandson was born nearly three months premature in June; his respiratory issues were so bad he had to stay in the hospital until December. He is home now, but I am terrified that I could bring this disease home to him.
We health care workers pull together to help each other, and the other nurses on my floor always make sure I have a plastic gown to protect myself and my grandson, even if it means one of them has to use a paper gown.
But we are hamstrung by the lack of equipment and the feeling that the government is slow and keeps changing the rules. We all need to get on the same page to win this war against an invisible enemy.
Kenya Clinton-Coles is a registered nurse at a Long Island hospital.
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