At the risk of personal safety, local nurses go to work every day at a clinic or hospital and help patients deal with symptoms related to COVID-19. It is an act of great courage to willingly enter an environment that could expose them to the coronavirus. Certainly, many healthcare workers have been struck by this virus. To get a better understanding of what it is like working on the front lines of a world-wide pandemic, we talked to three local nurses.
Sean Hart of San Dimas works in cardiology at an outpatient clinic, David Azor of Pasadena helps patients in a large L.A. hospital, and Jochen Strack of Pasadena is a bedside nurse at a hospital and a nurse practitioner in a clinic.
What is your general reaction to the crisis?
SH: Initially, I have to admit that despite being a nurse, I was ignorant and felt that things were being blown out of proportion. I used to consider myself well informed but, like a lot of people, I feel very let down by the national media and news broadcasters. Now that this pandemic has my full attention, I am determined as a healthcare worker to be as well educated as possible so that my friends, family, and patients can rely on me for sound, factual advice, information and care.
DA: My reaction is that this is a very real threat and that I have to be cognizant of my age (I am well over 65) and that we simply have to keep calm and work through this.
SJ: I worry very much about all those who will suffer tremendously from this, not because they got infected or seriously ill, but because they lose their livelihood or something else very important to them. My dad, for example, lives in Germany. He visits his wife, who lives in assisted living and has advanced Alzheimer’s disease, twice every day. Now he can no longer do that. He wasn’t allowed to visit her from one day to the next, with no forewarning. In his mind, my dad understands that such measure will help to prevent a spike in infections that will overwhelm hospitals. But emotionally, it is brutal for him. His wife can no longer comprehend what a coronavirus is. But she still recognizes my dad.
When he will be able to see her again?
My wife is Korean. Over there in her hometown of Taegu, the virus broke out about five weeks ago and quickly shut down most of ordinary life. Everyone is staying at home. My brother-in-law lost his job driving kids to school and after-school programs. This virus is also a challenge for relationships—and an opportunity to get to know each other better and appreciate each other more.
How are you personally coping with the coronavirus crisis?
SH: As a healthcare worker, I thrive to help but (right now) most of our patients are currently being asked to stay home unless they are acutely ill. We have adapted by utilizing telephone assessments to evaluate our patients and try to help from afar. On a personal note, I have very little fear for myself due to my trust and faith in Jesus Christ. That being said, I have to take this virus very seriously so that I can look out for my family, friends and patients who are more potentially vulnerable than I am.
DA: So far it has affected me surprisingly little. Clearly people are nervous at work, but we carry on. At home, I live alone and so far not much has changed except that I think very carefully before making trips to the shops. I also make sure that I leave the house at least once a day to go for a walk.
JS: A strange but somewhat comforting thought came to me. For me as a health care worker, it might actually not be a bad thing if I get infected early on. Once I heal, my immune system will be strong enough so that, in the very rare case of getting infected a second time, it would only be a cough. And so, I could safely go to work and help those who really need help.(editor:as of this writing there is yet no science confirming that the disease actually conveys future immunity, or for how long.) I understand that there will be many more seriously ill coronavirus patients and that the purpose of social distancing is to enable them to receive sufficient treatment before hospitals get overwhelmed.
How has the crisis impacted your job in the health industry?
SH: Quite frankly, like a lot of industries, it has had a crippling affect. We are turning most patients away unless we fear that they need acute treatment or evaluation. Any elective tests, procedures and surgeries are being cancelled in an effort to thwart the spread of the disease. This is frustrating for most nurses and doctors who have a passion and a calling to heal because we are supposed to be on the front lines in a situation like this. It makes us feel handcuffed so to speak.
DA: At this point, the main impact has been an increased awareness of the importance of infection control. Some of the staff is nervous and the patient flow patterns have been modified to reduce risk of infection at time of entry into the hospital. But other than that, it seems that life proceeds more or less as usual. If anything, it is quieter at this time because elective procedures and any non-essential treatment have been postponed to conserve resources for a time of greater need that may be impending.
SJ: Those surgeries that are not essential have been postponed. Our unit is usually fully occupied but now is down by one-third. Given that this unit is for heart surgery, it is unlikely that I will have a patient with the coronavirus. I also work as a nurse practitioner for people experiencing homelessness. Usually I go out on the streets with social workers. Now, I will try to follow-up with those I have treated before by phone. There will be guidelines by the Street Medicine Institute how to move forward safely. It’s a challenge to balance the medical needs of homeless people with my own health and needing to help people who are not homeless as well. My wife is an acupuncturist and, sadly, she has had to close her office now. She will take a big hit this year.
How do you think it will affect our way of life moving forward?
SH: I would hope for the better over time. The self-isolation has forced families to try and coexist without all the outside distractions for the first time in a long, long time. Hopefully, in the long run, we can come to understand that there is more to our precious life here on earth than our cell phones, snap chat, twitter, and self-proclamations. As Americans, too many of us are just flat out spoiled and way too privileged. But I have seen in the past that when our backs are up against the wall, we are able to come together as a nation and rise to the occasion. I hope and pray that we are able to band together and, despite the devastation of losing some of our dear loved ones, we will learn, become stronger with more resolved when all is said and done.
DA: I have no idea. Hundreds of thousands of people will be economically devastated by the pandemic and its effects on jobs and the economy. I suspect that a wartime precedent will be needed to guide the government’s future actions and, with the ineptitude of this current administration, who knows what the lasting effects will be?
JS: I do have hope that some good things will come out of this crisis. There may well be a greater sense of solidarity among all of us. Health insurance may finally be available to everyone in an affordable form. That, in turn, will save many lives in the years to come. But for now, many will pay a high price for that.