Even 25 years in scrubs couldn’t prepare one New York hospital worker for the coronavirus.
“Health workers are living a nightmare,” the critical care nurse, who floats between different units at a Long Island health center, tells The Post.
Although he asked us not to print his name — “Think of me as any nurse on the front lines” — the 57-year-old is offering something much more personal: pages from his diary, documenting the worst days of the crisis.
“I share them as some form of therapy, for myself and hopefully for others,” says the nurse, who altered identifying details about his patients to protect their privacy.
In his journal, our correspondent is candid about his battle with the disease — as a medical professional and, frighteningly, as a patient. His entries cut off in the second week of April, when writing became “too painful,” but he’s seeing slow, steady improvements.
“Nurses are beginning to speak with more hope,” he says. “Treatments are more effective and focused as we begin to understand the virus better. Some patients — not many, but some — are getting off ventilators and returning to their loved ones.
“This is Round 1. The war is not over, but we’ll be more ready for the next battle.”
It’s my first day back after a two-week vacation. We are starting to get a handful of suspected cases, but things seem under control. Similar to a regular flu outbreak or the swine flu a few years back.
We have had our first COVID deaths. In just three days, the total number of suspected cases has jumped to the 50-to-60 range. The nurses are stressed and fearful, and wear personal protective equipment nearly all the time.
My first day caring for COVID patients. I’m given a frightened woman in her 80s, an obese man in his 60s with labored breathing and a blind, diabetic double-amputee in his 50s who apparently spat and coughed on some of my co-workers yesterday. Great.
The nurse assistants are wary on rounds. When I ask them to feed patients or check their temperatures, they shake their heads. I can almost hear them thinking, “I don’t make enough to risk getting this.”
I save “the A-hole” — as another nurse has dubbed him — for last. He’s lying in a pool of diarrhea. I recognize him from a previous admission and call him by his first name and ask if I can start an IV. He replies, “The other nurses tried eight times last night and they don’t know what the hell they’re doing,” and lets me stick him.
I clean him up myself. (The assistant tries to hide her smirk.) When I’m done, I set up his tray and he tells me he’s not eating that s - - t and to get him a Pepsi and a cheeseburger. The best I can do is a bagel with cream cheese from down the hall.
The patient has no teeth and says to just shove the pieces of bagel into his mouth. So I do. He starts laughing, and for a moment we forget where we are. He tells me he’s probably going to die, but thanks for the bagel anyway.
We have over 100 COVID patients — about one-third of the hospital. All the ICUs are filling up with ventilator patients, and six floors are dedicated to isolation patients.
I get my first vent patient, a 70-year-old woman who is not doing well. The ventilator detaches twice while I’m caring for her, spewing infected air into the room. Her doctor tells me that her family plans to terminally extubate her tomorrow. My job is to keep her comfortable until the inevitable.
The family isn’t allowed to visit. The best we can do is hold a cellphone to the patient’s ear: “We love you so much. Miss you, Mom, Gamma, honey.”
I clean and turn her, fix her hair and leave the room fighting off tears.
The days begin to blur. I am exhausted. I am not sleeping well and my muscles ache. Tears run down my face during my commute.
When I get home, I make a beeline for the shower, then pour myself a beer and thud down on the couch. My family slides to the other side. No hugs, no kisses. I am a leper in my own home.
I sleep alone on the couch, waiting for my next shift.
The s - - t hits the fan. Our first patient is a 48-year-old COVID-positive man. He’s obese and has a history of hypertension. Although he’s on a high-flow oxygen mask, his breathing is labored, and his fear is palpable.
I ask if he needs anything. He groans that he hasn’t had anything to drink in nearly 24 hours. The nurses in the emergency department are so overwhelmed that they don’t have the time to fetch a patient a sip of water.
I get him a glass and pull off his mask so he can drink. He gulps it down gladly, and I rush to get his mask back on.
Our next patient is a 70-year-old man with a hunchback, which can put extra pressure on the lungs. He needs to go on a ventilator. I tell the patient, put my hand on his chest to comfort him and then knock him out with sedatives so an anesthesiologist can slip a tube into his lungs.
Another one, on a stretcher: a male, intubated. His face is turning gray, and his heartbeat is dangerously slow. I feel for a pulse that is not there.
I pull the code bell and start doing chest compressions — until a doctor bursts around the corner and shouts, “Stop!” The patient already coded three times in the emergency department.
Thanks for the present. We clean the patient and place him in a body bag.
Seven COVIDs today. I’m too tired to write.
I wake at 2 a.m. with a splitting headache. My skin crawls and I have the chills. My throat is sore and I’m coughing. Fear envelops me. I take deep breaths and pray. I knew I would get it.
I call the hospital to let them know I’m not coming in. Everyone at home gives a wide berth. My wife is worried.
Diarrhea overnight. Everything aches. I take a deep breath to make sure I still can.
I sleep on the couch again. My last thought before I drift off is that I need to write my will.
I am exhausted, and my head is pounding. I call my doctor’s office. He prescribes Zithromax to prevent pneumonia and orders a COVID test. It comes back positive.
After a week in pain, I feel relatively better. As soon as it’s been seven days from the initial symptoms or three days without a fever, hospital staffers are cleared for work again.
I meet both criteria, so I scrub up. The hospital is so desperate for ICU nurses.
When I walk in, my colleagues look at me like they’ve seen a ghost. One says, “We really didn’t expect you.”
Ten minutes later, I am in a recovery ward that’s been converted to a COVID unit. I am assigned two patients on ventilators, plus another nurse with no ICU experience to oversee.
I am back in the madness.