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What It Feels Like to Be a Frontline Nurse During COVID-19

By Arlene Ramirez, RN

It feels strange. It feels strange to walk the same hallways, visit the same rooms but see different patients each and every day, battling the same virus for almost a full year now. It seems that we are stuck in a time loop, day in and day out.

The COVID-19 crisis has left so many people hurt; from the families who have lost loved ones, to the frontline workers, like myself, who are faced every day with the same struggle, to do everything we humanly can to keep your mother, brother, father, best friend alive.

At the height of the crisis in March and April 2020, the health system I work for, Northwell Health — the largest in New York State — quickly became the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis. To put it bluntly, we were slammed. As a health system, and as a team, we rallied together and we overcame. At the worst of the crisis, across our 19 hospitals we had more than 3,400 hospitalized, severely ill patients.

Having experienced that, we are now better prepared as a health system and even though it is still challenging and frustrating that we cannot save every life, we are not giving up. We are doing the best we can. You learn about the number of deaths from the news, COVID-19 positive cases and what people should be doing to stay protected. But you don’t see what is happening within the hospital walls. You don’t see how ill people are, how debilitating it is, the panic and anxiety it causes, the frustration, the loss, the sadness.

One of the differences between the current COVID-19 surge and last year is that those infected with the virus are coming in earlier in the disease. They are still sick but there is no hesitation or confusion and they are seeking medical care sooner, which is a good thing. Why is that the case? Most likely it is related to all of the information, news and attention that is now available and the fear people feel about the severe illness the coronavirus can cause and how deadly this virus is.

For me, the greatest impact has been emotional. I have witnessed so much death and illness and felt powerless, unable to do more. Facing the virus has been disheartening for my team as well. I know what my co-workers have gone through and how it has affected all of us in different ways, and will for many years to come.

I too became sick with COVID-19 last March and I am still not the same physically. I fatigue easily. Working with masks does not make it any easier — but it’s a precaution we all have to take, including the general public.

With all of that struggle, there has been a bright spot — the vaccines, which have provided a glimmer of hope in the darkest of situations. I was the first Northwell Health frontline worker to receive the Moderna vaccine and with that injection a flood of emotions washed through me. I felt excitement that this was the beginning of the end of so much sickness and death. I felt hopeful that the vaccine would bring a better life and that we will be able to spend time with family and friends again without the fear of spreading the virus.

At the same time, I am sad. There has been so many lives lost and more to come. There are so many families that have been devastated, like mine. I lost my father to COVID-19. I couldn’t help but think: “If he would have held on longer, if he would have not gotten sick so early when the virus came, if we would have known more and been better prepared maybe he’d still be with us.”

But the vaccine is here now and I am optimistic this is the beginning of the end of this deadly pandemic.

COVID-19 is real. There are still so many unknowns about this virus. There are many people who are struggling with sequelae from the disease. There are still people dying. It has no restrictions or boundaries, the virus does not discriminate. We need to protect ourselves, our loved ones and those around us. Let’s weigh the risk and benefits, let’s make educated decisions.

We need to fear COVID-19, not the vaccine.

Arlene Ramirez, RN, is the director of patient care, emergency department, at Northwell Health’s Long Island Jewish Valley Stream Hospital in Valley Stream, New York.

Header image via Northwell Health