Nurse Recounts COVID-19 Experiences

Jessica AbsherJessica Absher is a registered nurse in the critical care unit at Wilkes Medical Center.

Even though the number of patients hospitalized with COVID at Wilkes Medical Center has decreased over the last few weeks, Jessica Absher, a registered nurse in the critical care unit at Wilke Medical Center said the pandemic continues to take a toll on her and her colleagues. There are still plenty of isolation carts outside patient rooms and red "STOP" signs on doors, indicating a COVID-positive patient is inside.

"COVID has changed us in so many ways," she said. "We try to limit our exposure in the COVID patient's rooms. We group our tasks and always assure that there's one person on the 'outside' who can grab anything we forgot so that we don't waste personal protective equipment (PPE). PPE has become our way of life and we conserve the best way we can. When you have two ICU COVID patients, much of your day is spent in a powered air-purifying respirator (PAPR), which has been a life saver for us and our patients." 

Nurses and nursing assistants wears many "hats", so to speak. Now, not only do they do their nursing jobs but the jobs of many other departments, too. "To limit other department exposures, we do the housekeeping within the COVID rooms, we assess their dietary needs and we manage IT issues that arise," Absher said.

But the job doesn't stop there for Absher and her colleagues. "Caring for a COVID patient, or two, plus the twelve hour shift would be enough for any individual to endure.  All in all, the days are brutal. We work intently all day to keep people alive – assisting physicians and anesthesiologists with intubations, helping with line placements for intravenous access and arterial blood pressure monitoring, titrating multiple medications, and proning the patients (to lie face down) up to sixteen hours of the day, while repositioning them every two hours for comfort."

She said she and her colleagues lean on each other for support during the difficult times. "Our ability to work as a team has been tremendous. My colleagues have always felt like family, but since the pandemic, we are all closer than ever before. Nobody knows what we're going through, not even our families, so we all support each other."

One COVID patient comes to mind for Absher. "This young man had many co-morbidities that made his recovery challenging. When I looked at his chest X-ray, I thought to myself, 'he will never be able to survive this' but he had a will to live unlike anyone I have ever seen. We all applauded him as he transferred out of the ICU, never having been intubated, and reminded him what a complete miracle he was. He was discharged home a few days later."

Sadly, ICU nurses see many difficult situations. Absher said the first patient she had who passed away was devastating for her, primarily because she wasn't there when he passed away. "He was doing so well and when my shift ended, I hugged him and promised to see him in the morning. But when I walked in the next morning, the night shift nurses met me at his empty room and put their arms around me. My heart was broken and that was the first of many times this would happen. I have sat with these dying patients for hours upon hours, as they draw their final breaths, alone, with only a nurse who they've known for a few days or weeks holding their hand as they pass away."

She has witnessed spouses, both sick with COVID, in rooms next to each other. "Watching a patient say their goodbyes to their spouse impacts every single staff member. I have watched nurses and aides cry who I had never before seen shed a tear. I have held family members in my arms and tried to comfort them. I have heard a heartbroken husband tell me, 'What am I supposed to do now? I have nothing to go home to.' The couple was having breakfast together in their home exactly one week prior to the day he held her hand for the last time and told her goodbye."

Despite the many challenges of caring for critically ill patients with COVID, Absher is grateful. "I am thankful that the Lord saw fit, many years ago, to place me into this career path. I wholeheartedly believe that He knew there would be a global pandemic and that we would need people to take care of the sick. I am so honored that He chose me to be one of those people."

When we first heard of the virus, Absher admits she was skeptical at first. However, when she started seeing the devastation and death caused by COVID, she began to change her way of thinking.

"I understand people are experiencing mask fatigue; I am right there with them. I don't like to see elderly people in nursing homes, only getting to stare out their windows at nature all day, never getting to receive visits from their loved ones. I don't like knowing these little children are walking around school all day with sore ears from hours upon hours of a mask wrapped around their little faces. But, I am here to tell you, that IF the mask works, you will be thankful you wore it. Maybe you're young and you have minimal to no symptoms, but your grandmother and grandfather may not be as lucky. I have watched ten or more family members contract the virus, but only the grandfather passes away in the ICU. It's devastating and I urge the community to continue to be vigilant and do your part to keep others safe."