Graphic via Tania Lili for Courier Healthcare Workers in Coronavirus Crisis
Graphic via Tania Lili for Courier

“I didn’t sign up to go into battle without battle gear. What good is it going to do if we all soldier on and get sick?

As a hospice nurse, Chelsea—whose name has been changed because she feared retaliation from her employer—was used to working 12-14 hour shifts several days a week. Because she provided end of life care for patients suffering from cancer, complications from diabetes, and dementia, many of her days were physically and emotionally exhausting. 

Among her duties at the hospice house, Chelsea, 26, was first and foremost responsible for helping to keep patients comfortable, including  lifting and turning patients to prevent bedsores and ensuring they were properly medicated. Often, after giving a patient a warm sponge bath and changing their gown and bedding, Chelsea would place a sachet filled with fresh lavender on their pillow. When the family of a dying patient needed a break, Chelsea would keep the patient company while completing medical charts.

Despite the fatigue associated with the long hours and the emotional heaviness that comes with anticipating death, Chelsea found palliative care rewarding: She cared for patients and their grieving families in their greatest time of need. 

But that was before the novel coronavirus reached the United States. Now, she sits on a couch at home worrying about her own health, her family’s health, and what will happen to her patients. 

Last week, Chelsea took a leave of absence from work, broke her lease, and moved back into her parents’ home. The coronavirus outbreak, she told COURIER, has forced her priorities to change: in recent weeks, she has had to shift her attention away from her patients to focus on her own mental and physical health, both of which have suffered greatly. 

Despite the increasing number of cases in her state, Chelsea said the company she works for is prioritizing profits over employee and patient safety. Before she left, her employer implemented a screening process for visitors, began a limitation on the number of visitors, and put bereavement support groups on hold to reduce transmission of COVID-19. “Every step they have taken to address the pandemic has been a baby step,” she said. “It’s not good enough and [the measures] aren’t enough to suppress or mitigate the outbreak.”

Chelsea said that medical supplies such as masks, gloves, and gowns were dwindling, and what was available was locked away and not easily accessible. She also said she worried that employees were being exposed to suspected COVID-19 patients without being given adequate face and eye protection. 

Supervisors were telling nurses to cut corners too, Chelsea added. At times, too few nurses were scheduled to meet the company’s policy for nurse-to-patient ratios. The risk of medical error increased because nurses had more patients than they could care for at one time, she said. 

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Chelsea also said she sometimes had to operate medical equipment that she had not been trained to use, such as an infusion pump. Supply budgets were so low that she would have to figure out how to dress a wound without the correct supplies. “If you want us to operate like a mini-hospital, you have to gear us like one,” she said.

When Chelsea spoke to her supervisor about her concerns over the lack of adequate protective equipment available, she was shocked at their response. “My boss told me, ‘You signed up for this.’” 

Chelsea said she didn’t expect to be shamed for advocating for her own safety: Her doctors have told her they suspect she has an autoimmune disease, which would put her at a higher risk of experiencing complications related to coronavirus. “I was horrified that [my supervisor] didn’t mention anything about what the company was doing to protect me or alleviate my concerns.”

Chelsea said that if her employer had made more of an effort to protect her and other potentially at-risk employees, she might have been more willing to continue working. “I care so much about my patients,” she said. “I love being a nurse. I don’t want to take time off.” 

Chelsea also admitted she has been dissatisfied with the status quo for some time. “Nurses need a fucking raise and hazard pay,” she said. “Part of the reason I don’t feel any obligation to be a hero right now is because no one is going to take care of me. I’ve been taking care of everyone else and been screwed over. I didn’t sign up to go into battle without battle gear. What good is it going to do if we all soldier on and get sick? Then who takes care of everyone?”

At this point, Chelsea said she’s unsure when and if she will return to her job, but would consider it if she sees the company taking proactive steps to adequately protect their staff. For now, she is using her time off to care for her own mental health, her family, and a plan for the future. She also said her anxiety is growing each day, but she feels good knowing she isn’t the one putting her ailing parents and elderly grandparents in harm’s way.

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Chelsea does acknowledge no matter what she does, tens of thousands of Americans will die due to complications related to COVID-19. She said she hopes her work in end of life care prepares her for the reality of losing loved ones to coronavirus.

“As I hold my breath in the coming weeks, I am doing a lot of meditating and visualizing what the wave of loss will look like in my own family and social circle,” she said somberly. “I implore others to do the same. It’s hard but it helps us to digest the seriousness of this situation.”