Being a nurse is hard. Being a mom is harder. Being both at the same time makes me question my sanity on a daily basis. Throw in a deadly worldwide pandemic that lasts two plus years. Fuck my life.
My name is Emily and I have been a bedside nurse for 14 years. For the first four years of my career, I was not yet a mother. Sure, my job was rough. Nurses have never had it easy. Too many patients per nurse. Not enough pay. Not enough appreciation. But I loved it. I thrived in it. I was born to be a nurse. My mother was a nurse and when I was a little girl, I dreamt of following in her footsteps. I have always worked three 12-hour shifts a week, four days off (usually not in a row). Pretty standard for a bedside hospital nurse. These days have always been long and difficult and often traumatic. But on my days off, back then, I really didn’t have any responsibilities. My husband has been a high school math teacher since we got married so he is always gone from 7a-3p during the day, Monday through Friday. On my days off, I could sleep away a random Tuesday if I wanted to. Maybe I was super stressed from being understaffed the day before. Maybe a patient’s family member verbally assaulted me. Maybe I had a patient die. Maybe it was a pretty decent day but I went to the bar after work with my coworkers and stayed up too late. Nurses need days off. Alone. With no responsibility to take care of other humans. On those days, I didn’t set an alarm, I didn’t make a to-do list. I slept on and off all day long and sometimes I cleaned and/or cooked dinner or did laundry but other days I lay on my couch in the fetal position, wrapped in a blanket, staring at the wall for 5 hours straight. Caregiver stress…it’s a thing. Look it up.
After 4 years of childless marital bliss (attempting to build our marriage and build our careers and gain maturity that we truly believed would make us better parents…psssshhhh), my husband and I were lucky as hell and we had our first baby. Myles. He was perfect. And I had 12 perfect (and sleepy and fun and adorable and fucking exhausting) weeks off from work. Once I returned, being a nurse took on a whole new meaning. Not only did I have to take on the trauma and the sadness and the heavy load of my patients and their families, but I had to function as a mother. A calming and peaceful place in which my infant could find comfort. A loving, patient, rested soul. A plentiful breast full of non-stressed milk. Yeah…right. On Opposite Day. So shit got real. And it sucked. But I still thrived. I didn’t lose my spark. Being a nurse still turned me on. I never for one second questioned it.
Fast forward to 2020.
It’s early March. We moved back to Wheeling, WV, our hometown. My husband, Jack, and I have two boys now, Myles and Griffin (7 and 4). Jack is the head of the Math department at the local public high school. I work at the hospital where I was born (41 years ago) on an impatient, acute care cardiac floor. I loved my job. Again, stressful as hell. Rarely enough staff to give these patients and their families the time and the specialized care they deserve. Lots of rough days, lots of trauma. But the good days always outweighed the bad. I still loved being a nurse. I still believed that it’s what I was meant to do. And when I walked in the door at 7:30p.m. after a bad day, all it took was those beautiful faces to erase all of the bad. My boys. My life. Their excitement to see me and their eagerness to tell me about their days. They are so innocent, so full of life. Without question, they had this magical way of making me smile. And poof! I’d automatically forget the last 12 hours.
Now everyone is talking about this new virus. Highly contagious. Fast spreading. Deadly. My family and friends would ask me, “What do you think about it? Think we’ll actually go on lockdown? Do you think your hospital will see it at all? Are you worried?” I would shrug my shoulders nonchalantly and say, “I’m not really sure. Not really. I think we’ll be ok.” I was trying to be tough, a bad ass if you will. The truth was, I was scared shitless. Partly because I truly didn’t know what it was all about and how real it all was and that unknowing feeling was terrifying. But mostly because I knew all too well that if this thing was real and if it was as horrific as everyone was saying, I wouldn’t be able to avoid it. There would be no lockdown for me. I wouldn’t be able to “stay home” with my husband and kids. I’d still have to go to work and I’d be right smack in the mother fucking middle of this thing.
And I was right. Lockdown began the weekend before St. Paddy’s Day, and I worked my full 36 hours that week, while my husband and kids and the majority of my friends and family stayed home. It started out slowly. We canceled all of the elective surgeries. We urged people to only come to the hospital for true emergencies. Work was actually kind of quiet there for a minute. But when it hit us, IT. HIT. US. We converted three impatient floors into Covid units and although my home unit was not one of those Covid units, my coworkers and I were required to float to the Covid unit about once a week for the patients who required speciality cardiac care. I won’t get too heavily into it, and I didn’t have it anywhere near as bad as the nurses who worked these units EVERY SHIFT, but these units were a NIGHTMARE. Not enough staff. Not enough supplies. Patients were sick. Like, REALLY REALLY sick. We were in so far over our heads and none of us could help each other because we were all drowning at the same time. There was nothing we could do for them.. We medicated the patients who could still breathe well enough to swallow pills. We fed the few who didn’t need a constant mask over their nose and mouth to keep their oxygen saturation above a life sustaining percentage. We bathed them and tried to keep them clean if we had time. Phone calls from their family members came flooding in all day long. They wanted updates. They wanted to know if their loved ones were going to be ok. They begged for us to let them visit. We had to tell them no. I said “I’m so sorry.” 10 thousand times a day. We watched them slowly die for twelve hours and prayed that it didn’t happen during our shift. And it frequently did. And it was TRAGIC. And I’ll NEVER EVER forget the horror for as long as I live. We were actually living through this bad dream, all the while being terrified of contracting it from one of our patients and bringing it home to our parents and grandparents and spouses and children.
We took turns floating to the Covid units on my floor. We rotated, so we had a heads up the day before whose turn it would be to float to Covid the next day. The nights before it was my turn, I’d cook dinner and put my kids to bed with a smile. I’d kiss them goodnight and tell them I loved them and promised to call them in the morning. Then I’d panic. I’d sit on my couch and stare. Sometimes, I’d drink Titos. Sometimes I’d drink a lot of Tito’s. I’d cry. I’d scroll and scroll through my phone until I got pissed off at facebook or at all my non-healthcare friends for constantly talking about all their Covid concerns. I’d picture what the next day would look like. How many patients would I be responsible for? Would anyone die that day? Would I discharge anyone home because maybe they got better? Maybe I’ll get lucky and they won’t need me to float!!
I slept like shit. I ate like shit. I drank too much. My mental status was not good. I craved my days off like my patients craved oxygen. When I wasn’t physically inside that hospital, I needed a mental break from life; time to just do nothing, think about nothing, care for no one. However, the kids weren’t in school. Classes were all virtual, and my husband’s school eventually required teachers to show up at school Monday through Friday, and conduct their virtual learning from their empty classrooms. Therefore, my days off were spent mothering. Teaching. Disciplining. Encouraging. Reassuring. Calming. Simultaneously disassociating. Attempting to survive. It SUCKED.
At the beginning of the pandemic, when the trauma was new to me, I tried to cover it up. When I got home from my shifts, I’d sit in my car for a few minutes in front of my house and give myself a pep talk before I went inside. (I would strip off my scrubs on my front porch before entering and I’d put on a bathrobe that my husband left out there for me…I apologized to my neighbors multiple times haha!) “Ok. They’re in there waiting for you. They need you to be strong. Get your shit together.” I’d get a quick cry in if I needed to, just to get it out of the way. I’d open the door and spread my arms open wide and they’d run to me and I’d squeeze them so tight. I’d tell them how much I missed them, because I really did. I’d tell them how happy seeing their smiling faces made me, because it really did. But as it got worse and worse and cases were multiplying by the day and our hospital was running out of beds and ventilators and nurses, I couldn’t cover it up anymore. My kids, especially my oldest, are perceptive. They saw it on my face. The tears would fall the second they hugged me on those nights. Myles would look at me with the biggest, most beautiful brown eyes and ask, “Bad day?” I’d tell him, “Yeah buddy.” He’d say, “Bad because someone died? Or bad because it was just busy and hard?” Because he knew that there were different types of “bad days.” He has the most tender heart. I’ll murder anyone who ever breaks it. Just kidding. Anyway, I was honest with them. They asked questions, I tried to answer realistically without being too dark. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I wanted them to know how awful this thing was and how serious we needed to be about it but I didn’t want to scare them or crush their resilient little souls.
I feel that it’s important to mention here that my husband was a literal life saver during this time. Although he wasn’t physically on the Covid unit with me and he didn’t actually see or experience what I did, he supported me in the best way that he could. He gave me exactly what I needed at the time. He planned fun family activities on our days off together because he knew I didn’t have the energy or emotional strength to come up with those types of things. He had delicious, home-cooked meals waiting for me when I got home from work. He made sure to have the boys bathed with their teeth brushed and PJs on so I had one less thing to worry about. There were nights when he knew that I didn’t want to talk about it, but he knew I needed a long hard hug. Other nights, when 8 p.m. rolled around and he could see the horror on my face when I walked in the door, he’d give the boys their tablets and he’d leave me alone in the kitchen so I could eat my dinner in silence. Because he just knew. I was and still am and always will be SO DAMN LUCKY to have him as my partner. So I leaned on them, and they leaned on me. Hard. We tried to keep busy. BTW, virtual learning with a preschooler and a 2nd grader is a MOTHER FUCKER. We argued a lot. We cried. We took a lot of breaks. We spent a lot of time outside. Myles learned how to ride a bike. Griffin lost some teeth and all my anxieties about the responsibilities of the Tooth Fairy (my kids are very light sleepers) were eased bc that brilliant bitch left him a note, asking him to leave his teeth in a bag outside of his room so that she wouldn’t have to worry about getting germs from all the little children she visits. On the occasional weekend I was off, we got to do things as a family. Just the four of us. We made some of the best memories of our lives.
I recently saw this quote that caught my attention. “Children are not a distraction from more important work. They are the MOST important work.” Ok, so I get what it’s supposed to mean. Put your all into your children. They should be at the center of your life, blah blah blah. But I took it differently. For the past two years, my children have ABSOLUTELY been a distraction for me…in the most fascinating way possible. My kids have been my safety. My sounding board. My sanity. They’ve kept all four of my wheels on the ground. Throughout this dumpster fire of a pandemic, they’ve given me a reason to smile. They continue to give me a reason to wake up every day, and keep going. Yes, self care helps. An incredibly supportive husband and family helps. The greatest friends sending encouraging notes and packages and dropping off my favorite coffee to me at work helps. But these beautiful little boys of mine…
Last week, I worked an incredibly long 12 hr shift. At the beginning of the day, one of my sweet patients stopped breathing, and within seconds, her heart stopped beating. I did CPR for what seemed like forever. We got a rhythm back and we got her intubated and shipped her off to the ICU. She wasn’t going to make it, I could tell. I called her family and filled them in. She didn’t have Covid, she was just very old and chronically ill and her body just gave out. Our Covid cases are thankfully few and far between these days and most of the Covid positive patients aren’t anywhere near as sick as they were from the years 2020-2021. But these situations are always hard, no matter the circumstance. I carried the pain with me for the rest of my shift. I put on a good poker face, but my heart was heavy. When I got home that night, Griffin, 6, was in the shower and I popped my head in the bathroom to say hi and to check on him. “Hey Griff!! You doin’ ok in there buddy?” “Hi mommy! Hey, is there still soap in my hair?” Already giggling to myself at his greeting, I peeked into the shower, his eyes were tightly closed. “Nope!” “What about on my hands?” (stretches his arms straight out in front of him with his palms facing up) “Nope, all clean!” He opens his eyes and wipes them with his clean hands, then smiles big at me. I ask, “Did you already wash your face and hands and armpits and penis and butt?” (I hear his brother snicker in the next room, because…penis is a funny word) He replies, “Yup!” with the proudest little look on his adorable little face, as though he had just won a prize.
We didn’t exchange a tear-jerking, sentimental dialogue. I didn’t come to a life-changing, earth-shattering realization. It was a normal Tuesday night at the K house. But that simple moment (temporarily at least) eliminated all of the pain and the sadness from my day. The bad is still there, and it will remain there as long as I continue in this line of work. However, I truly believe that the good will continue to outweigh the bad. I HAVE to believe that. And even if I ever change jobs or if I retire, it won’t go away. I’ll carry the trauma forever. But I’ll also be a mother forever. And I thank my lucky stars for that every waking minute of my life.