Darla Rugland is a Licenced Practical Nurse (LPN) working in Yorkton.
I have been a nurse for 17 years. I have witnessed a lot of things in those years, but nothing like COVID-19. Nothing that has globally impacted us such as this virus has.
I wanted to share my experience as a health care worker, as well as someone who has had COVID-19 myself.
I still remember when this pandemic started to hit home for me. It was March 2020; up to this point, COVID-19 was a word in the news.
As a nurse, I was invested in the fight against COVID-19. I read multiple medical journals, kept tuned into Dr. Tam and the World Health Organization (WHO) for updates and watched in horror as the numbers grew despite what was being done to stop the spread.
I was an LPN in Yorkton, Saskatchewan. Our numbers were minuscule. I washed my hands, donned my Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and every shift, I went to work with the understanding that just because it hasn’t happened yet didn’t mean that it wouldn’t happen.
I mentally prepared myself for the inevitable that one day COVID-19 would affect me and those around me.
In March 2020, it happened.
We had a positive COVID-19 patient who lost their life. I was never directly involved in the care of this patient, but it brought home the reality that COVID-19 was here, and the consequences were as horrible as the news headlines portrayed.
Shortly thereafter, I had a patient in my care that developed what we all have come to dread - the symptoms of COVID-19. Saskatchewan Health Authority had locked down visitors to compassionate reasons only. I watched my patient get sicker and sicker until he died. I watched his wife and daughter take turns coming into his room. One waiting out in the vehicle, while one came to sit with him. They weren’t both allowed in at one time.
And when they were told there was nothing we could do for their loved one, I was standing right there, the appropriate distance from the doctor and the family. I watched his wife cry with my hands behind my back, squeezing my own arms so that I wouldn’t give in to what every fibre of my being wanted to do, not only as a nurse but as a human: reach out and hug her, console her.
But I followed the rules because this virus is serious. This virus takes lives and I, as a health care professional, understood this. As much as it pained me to do so, I kept my distance and I did it for the greater good.
There are certain moments in my career that remain as clear today as the day they happened. My first code blue, the time a family was so happy that I was their mother’s nurse because I was there for them when their father had died. And this moment when I had to keep my distance from a lady who was told her husband of over 60 years was going to die.
All too often in medicine, a patient’s outcome is not positive. Even if the patient does get better and goes home, their experience of being ill or injured is hardly a positive one. Those of you not in health care look at us and wonder why we do what we do if this is the case the majority of the time.
I can’t answer for everyone in health care, but I do it because I feel like I help.
Even if someone dies, I helped them. I made them as comfortable as possible. I held their hand when they passed on. I helped their family.
When I had to keep my physical distance from someone who was hurting, my words felt empty and insincere without human contact.
I did not feel like I helped her.
In fact, it was one of the only times during my career that I felt useless. Even now, a year later the feeling of helplessness haunts me.
And the way I have cared for my patients and their family for the past 17 years is no longer feasible. I feel like I am less of a nurse or less of a compassionate one, and that makes me sad and angry.
I don’t work in an ICU; my patients aren’t vented; there aren’t multiple IV pumps and machines splayed across the room. I feel like this is the image that comes to mind when people think of COVID-19 patients in the hospital. And while this looks far more traumatic than the hospital rooms I deal with every day, it’s not. I still walk into every shift wondering what awaits me. How many COVID patients will I look after today? How will they feel today? And, even scarier, how many people will I come in contact with who have COVID but don’t know it?
Even getting dressed for every shift is stressful. Imagine, if you will, for 16 years of your career, for every shift you put on scrubs and a smile, and entered patient rooms. Now, it’s scrubs, isolation gown, gloves, mask, face shield, and in some instances, N95 mask. Forget the smile - no one can see it anyway.
And it’s not just slapping these things on and going into a room. There’s a whole process. After every piece you put on, you have to check to make sure every part of you is covered. After every piece, you wash your hands. Every time, every patient interaction, regardless of what the interaction is. To even pop in to say ‘hi, how’s it going’ to your patient, this is what must be done.
You are also spending less and less time with your patients, limiting your interaction with them. And even the time you do spend with them, it’s not the same. Imagine being sick, and the caring nurse walks into your room in a hazmat suit - do you feel relaxed? Do you feel a connection with her? You can’t even see her face. And if she does touch you, it’s awkward and cold because there is no skin-to-skin contact. The human connection is gone.
I am a great nurse but I am also human and there is only so much I can do and there are multiple patients who require my care. So as much as I am ashamed to admit it, I don’t give the same care I gave a year ago. It’s more, but at the same time so much less, and I hate that.
I contracted COVID-19 the end of January 2021. I am grateful to say that I recovered and that my symptoms were mild. Having said that, I must add that COVID really is much more than a flu or common cold. Colds and flus do not suck the energy out of you like COVID-19 does. For weeks after, I felt weak and exhausted. If this is what a mild case does to a healthy individual, I understand how it can take the lives of others.
While I was ill, the two constants in my heart were feelings of guilt and fear. Guilt that I got COVID-19, and that I brought it home to my family, that I caused worry and concern to my family, that I turned their lives upside down. The other constant was fear: I spent every single day in fear that my symptoms would get worse, afraid that my family would get sick, afraid that after having to put their lives on hold for two weeks, my children would have difficulty catching up at school.
I felt ashamed that I got COVID-19. We’ve all heard that if we follow the rules we can flatten the curve. The assumption is that if you got COVID, you must have done something wrong. But sometimes, even though you did everything that you could, you still get sick. Because COVID is still here.
And it’s terrifying to me that people still do not take it seriously.
We cannot just ignore COVID-19 and return to our normal way of doing things. I have high hopes that once the vaccine is available to all, we can at least start a new normal.
One where families can come together.
One where I can feel like the compassionate nurse that I want so desperately to be again.