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What I Learned as a Healthcare Hero

June 19, 2020 by

How do healthcare heroes feel?

Not necessarily very heroic.

For six weeks of this most unusual spring, I worked in a long-term care facility in upstate New York that lost dozens of residents to COVID-19. As a licensed practical nurse returning to the med cart after a decade’s hiatus, there was so much to learn in so little time. We did multiple double shifts, often at the spur of the moment when someone called in sick. It was exhausting and it seemed there was no end in sight. Still, I gave up very little taking on this short-term assignment: many of my coworkers were mothers who had been living away from their families for weeks, with hardly a day off.

Some of them, in fact, are still making this sacrifice.

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Working in long-term care during a pandemic is not glamorous. In my time there, the residents had to stay in their rooms. Activities and visits were cancelled. People were sick and dying. And we were doing all we could to enforce infection control on top of our regular workload. It’s no wonder that staff sometimes cut corners just to cope. Heroes are human – taking extra-long breaks to get in a bit of social life. Facetiming with family on their shifts. Ignoring the incessant cries of dementia patients who were confined to their beds for too long. Reality often flies in the face of the media-celebrated image of selfless, tireless, cheerful, service-oriented frontline workers.

But at the end of the day, we are that, too. We all put our lives on the line, especially middle-aged staff (one woman got so sick that she was on a ventilator; thankfully, she survived). We all managed to pull ourselves together to keep giving, day in and day out. Appearing upbeat when we felt stretched to the limits. Going back to see if residents really had everything they needed. And when our feet hurt too bad to walk straight . . . well, limping also gets you down the hall. Everyone did a bit of someone else’s assignment at one point or another. We ordered takeout, talked about faith and family, and joked as we rubbed Skin Prep on the N95-induced pressure ulcers on our noses.

It was extremely encouraging to have the support of the wider community. From the bottom of my heart, thank you to the local businesses and individuals who donated meals and ice cream to the staff. Thank you for the inspirational signs along the road and songs dedicated to frontline workers. Thank you for the hours put in manufacturing PPE, and for the prayers.

But after a while, some of the “hero” hype starts to feel hollow – especially when it comes from the rich and powerful. Yes, there was more PPE, but still not enough. Support and job protection for days spent in quarantine was available but by the time I left, some coworkers were still struggling through red tape to access those benefits. Staff that had been out sick came back, while others, exhausted, called in frequently. And although new government directives were well-intentioned, what we felt on the ground was an additional burden of new rules and regulations – many of them too little, too late.

I certainly feel it was a privilege to be healthy enough – and to have the training – to be able to fight the virus directly. (Not to mention that we, unlike so many others, had a job and stable income!) Everything we did, from the diapers changed to the meds crushed in applesauce to the endless clickoffs on the electronic charting system, was fighting and caring.

One of my prayers is that this crisis helps us take stock of the way we do long-term care in this country – and to question why families feel they have no choice but to institutionalize their loved ones in the first place.Unfortunately, I was often so strapped for time that I found myself seeing these acts of service as mere tasks to perform, racing against the clock. That was the hardest part. Every minute I spent with one resident was time I was robbing from the next. People who had tested negative for the virus lost ground physically and mentally after two months confined to their rooms, but holistic care was not an achievable goal. There was too little time to console those who were weeping for their families; to fully reorient the wanderer who slipped out of her door and turned up in the COVID unit at lightning speed; to talk politics with the resident who just wanted to feel human again.

Yet not every shift was super hectic. Sometimes there was time. Sometimes I made time. I also stayed overtime. I managed to assure an elderly lady that “bad guys” wouldn’t be coming in the window that night because they were afraid of the virus too. And once I shared the final morning with a resident who was drowning from both “the COVID” and lung cancer – gasping for every gurgling breath – holding his hand and giving him sips of water while the spring dawn came up behind the pines.

Still, such moments were few and far between.

If anyone reading this works in long-term care, the situation I describe will not seem so extraordinary. Yes, we had extra risks and challenges, but the baseline situation of burnt-out staff trying to care for too many residents is old news. One of my prayers is that this crisis helps us take stock of the way we do long-term care in this country – and to question why families feel they have no choice but to institutionalize their loved ones in the first place. There are other models. Perhaps because I have mostly worked in homecare on the Bruderhof, this assignment challenged me in so many ways. (More about that another time, or see this recent article from a friend.)

As I rejoin wider society and venture out of quarantine to engage in socially-distanced summer activities, and as the headlines hold non-virus-related news for the first time in months, I am determined to keep actively supporting all the healthcare heroes out there – whether they feel like heroes or not.

Because they are, and their deployment isn’t over yet. The fight against COVID-19 is still on.

As the last few months showed us our interdependence as a global community, we should keep remembering those on the front lines, even when they’ve disappeared from the front page. We still need each other.

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About the author

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Coretta Thomson

Coretta Thomson is a contributing editor for Plough Publishing.

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