“Coming straight out of nursing school, I did not realize how many people I would have to put into body bags. The veteran nurses on my unit expressed how the amount of death is something that they have never seen before in all of their years of experience.”Mary Kearney, ICU nurse
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, no one could have imagined the impact this virus would have on the entire world. According to the John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, on March 19th, there have been over 2,695,511 million deaths worldwide and 540,430 deaths in the United States alone.
During this time, healthcare workers were pushed to their limits as hospitals were filled to capacity with patients. They worked long hours in N-95 masks in order to protect themselves from the virus and try to save the lives of as many patients as possible.
For young healthcare workers, nothing in their training could have prepared them from going from students in classrooms to medical professionals working in a global pandemic.
Mary “Ellie” Kearney graduated from Samford University with her Bachelors of Science in Nursing in May of 2020. The following month, she began working as an ICU nurse.
The Local staff interviewed Kearney to learn her story of what it was like working during the height of COVID-19 as a newly graduated nurse and the challenges she faced.
Local: Explain what your job responsibilities are.
My job as an ICU nurse is to care for patients, fulfill doctor’s orders, critically think about the patient’s condition, and respond to emergencies. My responsibilities include assessing the patient, administering medications, titrating life-sustaining drips and responding to changes in the patient’s condition appropriately.
Local: When you first heard about COVID-19, what were your initial thoughts?
When I first heard about COVID-19, I was concerned but did not think it would have affected us as much as it has now. At the time, it was still in foreign countries and there were very few cases in the US.
Local: When did you know the virus was serious?
I knew the virus was serious when I heard that universities were closing for a while. Also, when (I was) watching the news and seeing places like New York City take a hit and lose so many people.
Local: What was it like finishing your last semester of college remotely?
Finishing the last semester of college online was definitely not how I was expecting the semester to end. I had to go back home to Georgia and finish nursing school with the same amount of stress but without my friends. Our “clinicals” were case studies. Each case study took multiple days and there were so many of them. It was definitely a challenge but I am so happy to be done with that part of my life.
Local: How did you adapt as a newly graduated nurse in the healthcare field during this time? Did your job responsibilities change?
As a new grad coming into the healthcare system at this time, it was definitely challenging and scary. I started my job in June 2020. At the time, I was at Northside Cherokee and there weren’t a ton of COVID-19 cases at the time since they had gotten hit a lot earlier than most hospitals in the area.
However, a few weeks into working, the numbers started rising very quickly and we ran out of beds and had to overflow into another unit. Soon, it was rare to have a patient that did not have an isolation caddy outside their door. Most of the patients were intubated, sedated, paralyzed and on a prone protocol. It was difficult for me (to see) so many people that were otherwise pretty healthy suffering from widespread disease.
Local: What is it like working in a mask?
Working in an N-95 mask is difficult but honestly, it’s all I’ve ever known. There are some doctors and nurses that I’ve never even seen their faces without a mask before. At the end of a 3-day stretch, the bridge of my nose is definitely sore from the N-95 masks.
Local: What was the most challenging moment working during COVID-19 for you?
The most challenging moment for me is when we have done all we can do for a patient and just have to wait it out to see if they are going to make it or not. Towards the middle of COVID-19, families were not allowed in the patient’s room if the patient was COVID-positive under any circumstances.
When a family decided to make their loved one “comfort care,” we would extubate the patient, turn off all of the drips, and their family members would watch them pass away through the glass door. Family members would be putting their hands on the glass, sobbing, staring at the monitor, watching the oxygen saturation number slowly decrease and pacing the hallways.
That was the hardest part for me. This happened more than people realize. Family members are lost for words when someone they knew a month ago that was healthy and having conversations with them could take a turn so quickly and they would end up having to make these decisions. Oftentimes, the patient was young and had not thought about their advanced directives yet and it left the family members having to make hard decisions on whether or not the patient would have even wanted to be intubated, had tube feedings, trached, chest compressions, etc.
Another challenging part is when a patient’s oxygen levels are decreasing and despite all of our efforts, the patient is requiring so much oxygen and needs to be intubated due to respiratory failure. The respiratory therapist is setting up the ventilator, the doctor is preparing for the intubation and the room is filled with hustle and bustle. The nurse takes the moment to explain to the patient face-to-face what we are about to do and what exactly it means to be intubated and that we will be giving them medication to help them sleep through it.
We say all of this knowing most of the time COVID-19 patients don’t wake back up to make it off of the ventilator but we are going to give it our best shot. They are terrified and we are terrified for them. If the patient is quickly able to, we would encourage them to make one last phone call to their loved one and those phone calls are some of the most chilling and heartbreaking conversations that I have ever heard, especially if that was the last time they would hear each other’s voices.
Almost every time I work, my patients ask if they are going to die to which I respond that we are doing everything we can and that is true, but also they are in a place where death is a strong possibility even despite all of our efforts.
Local: What hope do you have for the future?
The hope I have for the future is the vaccine. I was vaccinated in December and ever since late January, we have seen the numbers decrease. I have strong hope in the vaccine and the results of a decrease in the severe cases that we have already seen. I continue to wear a mask in public because even if I help stop the spread to one person, that is completely worth the extremely small amount of discomfort that I go through to wear a mask.