Written by June Miller RN, Ph.D., COL, USAR, ANC RET, Past President and Scholar, Transcultural Nursing Society
In the New York Times, we learned of the death of Kious Kelly, a nurse manager at Mt Sinai West, who died of corona virus while on a ventilator in the hospital intensive care unit at the near peak of this outbreak in New York City. Kelly’s colleagues were told not to talk to reporters, for fear of losing their jobs. The stories of nurses without proper PPE, working the front lines of this battle without adequate protection is criminal. And yet they go. They work overtime, they wear trash bags, they make masks out of cardboard report folders, or they go without. They cry at work, they cry at home. Many live at work to protect their families. They keep their horrific stories secret and go back again day after day knowing it will only get worse. As colleagues test positive, hospitals are not always reporting it, and nurses are told to keep quiet. The data is hidden from the public. There is so much happening behind the chaotic scenes of which we are not aware.
I know these nurses, I know what they do at the bedside, I know their repeated exposure risk. They are assisting with intubation, they are suctioning regularly, they are bathing and providing intimate personal care for these critically ill patients, and they are comforting each one of them as they face death alone and frightened, without family members. They are exhausted mentally and physically. They are working (the lucky ones) in full hazmat suits, they are steaming hot and clumsy in the gear as they regulate ventilators, turn and move patients, administer medications, and provide for basic needs. They run from one bedside to the next for twelve hour shifts, many not even changing the protection they have, which should be changed after every patient. They administer CPR to those who go into cardiac arrest, they clean equipment and clear out rooms to prepare for the next onslaught. They are now caring for patients sharing ventilators, so that each may be compromised. They do all this with grace, enthusiasm, and expertise as they nurture these stunned and confused dying patients, the lucky ones who have made it into the hospital at all. Others, they triage outside or in the emergency rooms, where exposure to anything infectious is even higher risk. These professionals are on their feet all day and more, the adrenaline is rushing as they try so desperately to meet the needs of every human they pass by, and then the hordes coming in every hour.
Nurses have served in the military since the Crimean War. Florence Nightingale set the standard taking her trained team into battle as early as 1854. In the US we had nurses in the civil war and on forward. Nurses were offered officer rank as Military Nurses during WW II in the Army and Navy. They served in Korea and Vietnam and continue to represent us around the world. Where are the stories?? Most have not been told. We lost nurses in combat in Vietnam. There were many Army and Navy Nurses held prisoner in Corregidor in WW II. The history is there, the stories are not. But today, these nurses in NYC, in Wuhan, in Lombardy and Veneto are facing a much larger threat. They are not in combat hospitals behind the front lines. They ARE the front lines. The enemy is seeping into their skin, their masks, their lungs, and bodies. And where is the outrage? Where is their protective gear?
It is only going to get worse. We must flatten the curve but we will unnecessarily lose many providers along the way. Because nurses are the primary bedside caregivers they are the most at risk. Let’s protect them and let’s honor their bravery as we have combat veterans of the past. They deserve no less. They are fighting this war with all they have; their courage, their compassion, and their competence. Let the stories be told and let God bless them all.