Community//

Surprises & Reflections of a Public Health Nurse in 2020

Seeing the pandemic through a nurse's eyes

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Photo by Daan Stevens on Unsplash
Photo by Daan Stevens on Unsplash

As a public health nurse in Chicago, I see 2020 as a year characterized by incredible loss. I work in homeless services, and the people I work with are at increased risk of getting sick from COVID-19. 

Many individuals don’t have money for groceries, medical supplies, or bus passes to get to appointments. The pandemic is just another layer on all the other crises they face daily.

When I imagined the year 2020 as a child, I pictured my successful career as a neurosurgeon. As a child in the 90s, I’d hack away at a gray lump of dry plaster my dad gave me to play with, practicing my nascent surgery skills next to him as he put drywall up in our basement.  Back then, the year 2020 sounded more like a rhyming stanza in a poem than a reality. 

But dreams evolve. I became a nurse whose first job out of school was in pediatric neurosurgery. A couple of years later, I transitioned to working out in the community in homeless services. The work was always difficult, but 2020 presented new challenges. 

In April, I pedaled my bike along barren streets in search of a single thermometer to buy in order to take residents’ temperatures at a homeless shelter in Uptown. The city recommended we check shelter residents’ temperatures daily, but no one had the supplies. 

Even if we found an available thermometer at a drugstore, pharmacy or grocery store, how would we check temperatures without enough personal protective equipment for our staff? The 2020 future of my childhood imagination had evaporated into a daily grind of cobbling together donations for people many had forgotten.

We began hearing about increased deaths of residents in our permanent supportive housing program. The loss was all around us. I’d go home and watch the news, listening to people rant that masks violated their personal rights and COVID-19 was a conspiracy. 

It felt like stepping outside into bright daylight after working a busy nightshift filled with beeping alarms, crying families, and the hurried pitter patter of nurses rushing around. How could one reality be so different just steps away from the other? 

I’ve started to make sense of the jarring range of reactions to the pandemic by reflecting on family encounters in the hospital. In one room, I’d work with a boy who had just received chemotherapy delivered directly to his brain through a tube stitched to his head while his mom holds a pale pink basin for him to throw up in. The mother has a singular, quiet focus on her child. Her goal is simply to get through another day. 

In the room next door, I’d care for a 12-year-old recently diagnosed with Type I diabetes. He’d watch movies and order chicken fingers off the dinner menu. His mom is in a panic, she cries to me and is quick to anger. I answer her call light dozens of time throughout the night to answer questions and provide support. 

This whiplash makes some nurses upset. When you’re the person who moves between these two rooms, you can lose sympathy for the latter. It’s not fair, but it’s true. 

Some nurses, feeling drained, would quietly complain about the second family to one another saying, “It’s not like your kid is dying.” But that’s not a reasonable statement. Not everyone has the perspective of being in both rooms. I had to remember that. 

The pandemic has silenced the voices of the people who are like the first mother who is focused on getting through another day. Tired healthcare workers come home, eager for a heavy, paralytic sleep before going back in again. Those of us working in homeless services drive home, simmering with anger over unfair systems and saturated with vicarious trauma. Then we zone out and watch TV. 

Much of what nurses do is witness, acknowledge, and listen. We see the ranges of experiences as we move from one room to the next. And so here I go, trying to bring you along to both rooms with me.

One of my formerly homeless clients spent the majority of his initial $1200 stimulus check from the spring on funeral arrangement for a family member who died from COVID. 

Another client regularly runs out of his monthly cell phone minutes and told me that his social isolation confounded with the recent death of his son and niece played a role in a recent suicide attempt. 

One of the shelter residents developed COVID symptoms. In this shelter, residents sleep, eat, and spend their day in a common room. 

While the staff waited on his results, he self-quarantined in a small, windowless basement room with a mat on the floor. When I informed him his results were negative and he didn’t need to quarantine anymore, he remarked that while he was happy, he was disappointed too, because this was the first time he’d been able to sleep in his own private space in a very long time.

Another one of my clients, who desperately needs access to more financial and mental health resources, communicated her grief and anxiety around the pandemic to me as she explained why she feels she is pregnant despite an ultrasound and blood work that say otherwise. 

She said she thinks her pregnancy is not typical, which is why doctors haven’t been able to diagnosis it. She said that her baby is hiding inside of her, waiting to be born until it’s safe outside, after the pandemic is over.

I’m haunted by these stories, and legislators and policy makers need to know these stories as well. It’s time that more federal aid reaches the people who need it so they can spend money on what they need most. The pending vote to increase stimulus checks for individuals from $600 to $2,000 will help, even as the $600 payments go out to Americans.

It will be a minor gain in a year of loss. 


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