As we hide in our homes and wonder what comes next, I find myself feeling restless and wanting to make a connection, to express something. I still have the privilege and burden of having a paycheck, having a job to go to, having co-workers to interact with and having money for our mortgage and food. But I don’t know at what cost.
I am told there is a monster looming that I cannot see. I am told that if this quarantine feels like an overreaction, we are doing it right. But I’m not quarantining, I’m going to work. You see, I’m an emergency room nurse in the middle of Richmond. I’ve found myself feeling emotional these last couple of weeks as I’ve had family and friends reaching out to see how I’m doing.
Pandemic defense is not what I signed up for. This is not what I signed up for.
Encountering microscopic threats is what we do every day. I’ve had people with strep throat cough directly into my eyeball. Your aging parent’s feces on me, their dry skin flakes in my nose and in my hair. Your drunk daughter’s vomit on my pants, your friend’s pee accidentally dumped on my shoes. None of that ever concerned me – it’s part of the job. Nurses have a different gross-out tolerance than the common person. Who among us hasn’t had a mucus plug coughed out of a tracheotomy and onto our chest? We keep calm and carry on.
Let me tell you about other parts of my job. Calling child protective services because a quiet child has too many injuries in multiple stages of healing to explain. Calling adult protective services because an old sweet woman has come from long-term care with four briefs on and wound dressings that haven’t been changed for weeks, covered in bedbugs. Calling police because a drunk person is suicidal again because he can’t stop drinking and doesn’t understand that after spending every evening that week pissing on our emergency room floor he’s worn out his welcome. Calling security to help us with the patient trying to break my jaw because we restarted his heart and sent him into immediate opiate detox. Calling on the last of your fucking patience because your chronic back pain patient is angry that you forgot ginger ale.
Have you ever held space for stranger’s despair inside of you as they try to cope with saying goodbye to someone they love forever? I have.
Now I’m hearing emergency rooms referred to as “the front line” during this COVID-19 crisis. Please believe me when I say the emergency room has always been the front line. Before the help comes, it’s me. I am the help. It’s my co-workers who have my back and don’t allow me to face these challenges alone. And we have been abused by this country and by the for-profit health care system.
I especially felt this way when I was working at our Level 1 Trauma Center and I still feel this way now: Going to work often feels like going to war. A war against drugs, against violence, against misplaced anger, unfortunate happenstance, disease and neglect. We have always been fighting silent wars for overlooked populations.
Do not send me into battle with a fabric mask.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is telling us that in a pinch we can use bandanas when we have contaminated all of our armor. I guess that might be a cute accessory while playing cards, right? Across all companies in Richmond, nurses are being asked to reuse single-use Personal Protective Equipment and to sign masks out like a child borrowing materials in art class.
I am not a martyr. My family will not receive better health care, educational reimbursement or hazard pay if I die. I struggle to understand how the “greatest country in the world has found itself in such a dire scenario.
COVID-19 has equalized our anxieties, made the rest of the world as scared as I often am. We don’t get a second chance at this. I am begging you to remember how you feel right now. Because once this is all over, I think we need to have an open conversation about what is essential to our society.
Are we realizing that the fabric unravels when our teachers aren’t at school to teach? That EMS and hospital workers and police and firefighters and food services and trash services -- the list goes on -- are essential and perhaps should be able to support themselves financially without working 60 and more hours per week? Are we realizing that a system that values profit above paid time off, or preventative health care being accessible, has been putting stress on our ERs for years? This time the consequences are more severe. America, when will we leave this abusive relationship?
I am begging you to remember right now how it’s felt to give the planet some time to rest. To spend time at home with your animals, your family and yourself.
How it has felt to turn inward and evaluate what coping skills you employ. How it’s felt in a moment of desperation and helplessness to realize that life is more than paying your bills until you die.
This is no one’s fault. I hope after this all ends we are still checking in on people. Thanking them for what they do. Questioning how we can be of service. I pray that when this is done we will still find reasons to sing from our balconies together.
Emily Wharton is a certified emergency room registered nurse working in Richmond. She has worked in three emergency rooms and has worked in health care for 10 years. She lives in the city with her husband and a menagerie of animals. This year, she begins her educational journey to become a family nurse practitioner.
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