I began my nursing career more than 30 years ago in labor and delivery, caring for high-risk mothers and their babies. Over the years, I have witnessed the extraordinary work of hundreds of nurses who don’t think twice about putting their patients’ needs ahead of their own physical and emotional well-being.
Today, as the chief nursing officer at healthcare technology company, I have the opportunity and the privilege to speak with nurses all over the world – and I am forever humbled by the remarkable stories I hear from the front lines.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt was known for saying, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something is more important than fear.” I am seeing that philosophy being lived every day in hospitals across the country and around the world.
Make no mistake: after months of battling COVID-19, nurses are tired, they are frustrated, and they are afraid – at least partially of the unknown. All these months after it first appeared there are still uncertainties about why this deadly virus affects different people in different ways and what its long-term effects will be. Nurses are also afraid because they still do not always have the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) to ensure their own safety or that of their patients. I hear many stories of nurses wearing the same N95 masks for two weeks at a time because they do not have enough masks to change them each time as they should.
They are afraid of what is to come in the next few months as well. Barely able to catch their breath from the previous round, they are concerned about predictions that colder weather moving more people indoors, along with people feeling they are “tired” of the mitigation efforts, will lead to a fall and winter surge that is worse than what we witnessed in the spring.
And, of course, they are afraid that in caring for the needs of others they might bring the virus home to their own families or become ill themselves. The fatigue and worry are heavy. The worry is like a backpack they can never take off.
Yet, despite these fears, I continue to see nurses charge head-first into the worst of it, doing all they can to ease the bodies, minds and spirits of patients and their families. Against terrible odds, their commitment to their mission is relentless. As a former front-line hospital nurse, I can honestly say I have never been prouder of my profession or the people in it.
Stories from the Frontlines
Throughout the pandemic, I have been moved by the many amazing stories of nurses heroically delivering care while struggling to cope with its devastating effects. Here are three stories that I have found particularly inspiring.
Mary* in Texas talked about the emotional toll of connecting with patients through all the PPE.
When patients come in, they are isolated from their families as part of the effort to slow the spread. While that decision makes medical sense, it is very dispiriting for patients. Normally, Mary would rely on her smile, her touch, and human-to-human contact to provide comfort. But it is difficult for patients to see her beaming face of hope through layers of PPE. She believes much of nursing is the healing power of touch – and worries that her touch is less comforting because she is wearing latex gloves and her face is mostly hidden.
Yet she also knows patients need human connection somehow, so she works harder than ever to deliver it – especially for patients whose last words to their families will be on the phone or through a mobile application.
She says she is more exhausted at the end of each shift than she has ever been. But she believes that even through the PPE she is making a difference in patients’ lives and will continue to do so for as long as it takes to get through the pandemic.
Then there is Paul*, who works at a hospital in New York City, which was the epicenter of COVID-19 when it first rose to pandemic levels in the U.S. It is a big deal when a patient comes off a ventilator, especially given the results of a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that found an 88% mortality rate for patients on ventilators.
Paul shared that when a patient does successfully come off this machine, the hospital has started playing the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” on the intercom, much like many hospitals playing “Brahms’ Lullaby” when a baby is born. His morale – as well as the entire staff’s – is boosted by this small action because they are reminded that they have helped someone survive a dire situation.
At a hospital in Utah, an intubated patient used music to show his gratitude for frontline workers. Sitting on his bed in an isolation room, Grover Wilhelmsen played his violin to thank his nurses and doctors for their extraordinary care. The “Tennessee Waltz” was broadcast from his room to care team members via their wearable Vocera Badges. It was a beautiful moment captured on video that moved me to tears and reminded us that humanity in healthcare is powerful and healing.
New Standards for PPE
As healthcare leaders look for ways to protect and connect nurses and other healthcare workers, I urge them to consider making hands-free communication an essential part of PPE. Wearable comms devices worn under PPE can help preserve this valuable resource and minimize risk of infection to staff. Every time a nurse leaves an isolation room to answer a call, ask a question, or get supplies, he or she must remove PPE, which must be done very careful to avoid self-contamination.
As long as COVID-19 remains a public health risk, PPE is a “must-have” that must be preserved – not reused. With voice-controlled devices, nurses can communicate hands-free without disrupting care or leaving the patient’s bedside. By making hands-free communication devices a standard part of PPE, hospitals can reduce the number of times a nurse must walk in and out of an isolation room and don and doff PPE.
Nurses deserve this level of protection. We should not ask them to risk contamination to communicate. In fact, if we want to honor nurses for their relentless dedication and lifesaving work, there is no better way than to provide solutions that help reduce their level of fear and cognitive burden and protect their physical and emotional well-being.
During this unknown and complicated time, I am thankful to see nurses finally receive the recognition they so richly deserve. Yet, while we to praise them, we must protect them.
*Not their real names.