COVID-19 and the trash bags on nurses as personal protective equipment!

I watched the nurse who was in charge of my patient with COVID. She went in and out of the room as little as she could so as to limit the spread of infection. She was cheerful when she went in and tried to communicate as much using the iPad as possible with the patient. She finally slumped in her chair and looked exhausted. I looked at her sympathetically, took a small piece of a KitKat bar from my pocket, split it with her and wordlessly left to see my next patient.

The connection that a physician has with a nurse is not something that we can explain to the general public. It wouldn’t make sense to many people due to the stereotypes and sensational narratives that are attached to the hospital life.

Wish at least one physician was on the production team of all these hospital shows to address the wrong portrayals.

I returned to the floor a few minutes later because the nurse had received another patient. As I watched her donning and doffing the personal protective equipment for the umpteenth time, her hair tangled, her steps a little heavy now, I realized the burden of physical work that we carry as healthcare workers.

We don’t really feel it. The medical decision making is so all-consuming that the physical work becomes easy and even, mindless. It doesn’t register. It almost is a respite from the mental stress of saving lives.

After we had both seen the patient we settled down at the nursing station while I put in orders and dictated my note and she verified the patient’s home meds with the history we had obtained.

At the end of another grueling COVID admission we heaved a long, deep sigh, stuck out our faces from the masks, took a deep breath before diving in and going our separate ways. As I left I saw a call bell blinking at the nursing station and the nurse getting ready to don PPE and see another patient.

The relationship with my female nurses is sisterly and friendly. With my male nurses there is banter and a camaraderie that I don’t share with many people outside of work. Regardless of their gender, their fierceness in being my partners is their strongest suit.

I’ve been an attending for a few years now. I’ve had the great fortune to have trained with some amazing nurses. When I was a scared intern in residency, unsure of my moves, I was guided by nurses all the time. Nurses don’t do this as a benevolence. They take pride in their role in a physician’s training. Their universally brusque and no-nonsense attitude helps young physicians model confidence also.

When I became an attending I met even more nurses. But now the dynamic was slightly different. Where before I listened, now they wait for my orders. Where before I looked to them, now they expect me to run the show. The shift in dynamic never changes our partnership. It’s just a way of a physician becoming more autonomous and independent.

Nurses come in many forms. Some are gentle, some abrupt. Some are funny and some disapproving of any inappropriateness around them. Some are overwhelmingly loving and some more of the “tough love” givers. They are all unanimously caring. That’s the core of a nurse. That’s where a nurse becomes indispensable. That’s where no one can take their place.

Which brings me to the purpose of this blog post.

I’m watching nurses wearing trash bags as personal protective equipment in New York City in the middle of a pandemic of apocalyptic magnitudes. I’m watching them living in hotels so as not to expose their family to coronavirus. I’m watching a huge sacrifice play out with no respite in sight.

A lot on this blog is about physicians. Some day I’ll write about the moral injury that doctors face. How we are misunderstood and underrepresented. How we have been inundated with non clinical work under the pretense of it being patient care. But this one is for the nurses wearing trash bags and fighting COVID-19. This one is just for this particular subset of healthcare workers who hold our hands while we are in labor, who sit on family meetings with us to make it easy and who fluff our pillow one more time before we turn in for the night, away from our family in a hospital bed. This one is for the nurses who keep vigil.


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