The nurse behind the mask

Sussex County. One of my neighbors, a Sussex County resident, with a compelling story to tell. I am well aware of her name, hometown and the hospital at which she worked as a nurse. However, for the sake of her family and future job prospects, she asked that this information not be disclosed. Here is the story of Nurse X.

05 May 2020 | 02:14

Nurse X is a real person, a Sussex County resident, who has asked for anonymity.

“I don’t want to mention the name of the facility I worked at, as they are not doing anything any differently than any of the other area hospitals, and worked very hard to protect my coworkers and me, with the supplies they had on hand,” she said. “They are following CDC recommendations, which unfortunately have changed since this pandemic first began, and supplies dwindled. I hear supplies are starting to come in now. It is just a shame they were not available from the beginning.”

Nurse X was an RN at a hospital in Morris County for 40 years, working to deliver direct patient care on various units. She holds a master’s degree and has taught nursing students. But she said the conditions under which nurses are required to work are nothing like what she learned in nursing school, or teaches her own students.

“COVID-19 was initially said to be spread by airborne, droplet and contact means," she said. "Airborne viruses have traditionally required the use of a specially fitted mask called an N95 respirator mask. When it was discovered that there was a severe nationwide shortage of these masks, the CDC changed their recommendations, stating the virus was spread by droplet means. What this means to a caregiver is that from the start, they were given surgical, not respirator masks. Surgical masks are the ‘I protect you from my germs’ masks. So, they do nothing for the caregiver, unless the patient is the person wearing it. I have heard this compared to sending a soldier into battle with no armor.”

Because of her age, Nurse X was not assigned to the “diagnosed” COVID patients. However, on every floor she worked, there were patients with fevers, coughs, very sick, or in isolation for other reasons.

“It was obvious that there were many patients who were just not being diagnosed because of the lack of testing equipment,” she said. “That was saved for the very sickest people. On these non-COVID units, I was given a surgical mask, gloves and a gown to care for any isolation patients. I was told to reuse this protective equipment (except for gloves) until it fell apart, because one was all I could have. In a proper isolation environment, a caregiver dons a new gown, gloves and mask each time he or she enters a room, and discards it when leaving. In a 12 hour shift, that would be 12 times, at a minimum, per isolation patient. Now, I was issued one to be used over and over again. I guess I was lucky, since I have heard of health care workers resorting to using garbage bags instead of protective gowns.”

Worried about bringing COVID-19 home

It soon became apparent to Nurse X that she was not properly protected to care for any potentially positive COVID-19 patients. She said she worried about her family.

“As the parent of grown children, grandchildren, as well as several young adoptive children, and a retired spouse, I have a responsibility to protect them as well as I can," she said. "By going back and forth to the hospital each day, I was potentially infecting them all every single day that I worked.”

Nurse X set up a protocol. She would return home from work, remove her Crocs, and wipe them with a bactericidal wipe before putting them in the sun to dry. Her clothing would go directly into the washer with hot soapy water. She would shower and scrub herself with hot soapy water for 20 to 30 minutes. She would remove her contact lenses and rub them with alcohol (they are hard, so a little alcohol doesn’t hurt them). She would wipe off her watch, name badge, and pens with alcohol. She would also wipe the inside of her car with bactericidal wipes as well as all the door handles in the house.

“I heard this virus can live on metal surfaces for days,” she said. “So I just kept cleaning and cleaning everything I may have touched. My isolation gown and surgical mask also were wiped down and stored in a bag.”

Then, she would start helping the kids with their remote school work.

“I had constant anxiety about returning to work, doing the wrong thing, and inadvertently bringing this virus home to my family,” she said. “My youngest child, who is a preschooler would cry when I left for work. This virus could be on any surface, harboring in any person I encountered. I obviously loved my job, my coworkers and my patients, or I would have not worked there for such a long time.”

A tough decision

It was a tough decision, but last week, Nurse X resigned.

“With so many mouths to feed and several kids to still get through college, our family has taken a big financial hit,” she said. “But, it seemed like a necessary step. As I saw coworkers, doctors and other health care providers getting sick, and hearing of the deaths of other health care workers, it became apparent that this was what I had to do. I could not risk one more day of potentially infecting my loved ones. It is sad that in the richest country in the world, that we cannot get proper protective gear to do our jobs correctly. I feel like we were just all thrown out to be sacrificed. Then they call us heroes. “

The morale at the hospital when she left, she said, was a sensation of everyone being overwhelmed.

“Twelve-hour shifts evolved into 15 hour shifts,” she said. “The last three or four shifts I worked, I never got a break, except to use the restroom. There were not enough hands to relieve me, and constant emergencies hospital wide, codes being called, intubations, staff running from floor to floor. Platters of donated food sat untouched in the break room, since no one had a chance to take a break.”

Nurse X is emphatic about social distancing.

“As for those people who are angry or bored about social distancing, consider it a privilege,” she said. “I had to give up a 40-year career in order to have that privilege. I hope I have done enough to protect my family.”

"When it was discovered that there was a severe nationwide shortage of these masks, the CDC changed their recommendations, stating the virus was spread by droplet means. What this means to a caregiver is that from the start, they were given surgical, not respirator masks. Surgical masks are the ‘I protect you from my germs’ masks. So, they do nothing for the caregiver, unless the patient is the person wearing it. I have heard this compared to sending a soldier into battle with no armor.”