Editor’s note: In the coming weeks, The Jewish Press will run dispatches from nurses affiliated with the OJNA (Orthodox Jewish Nurses Association) who have been heroically caring for Covid-19 patients.
I walk through the double glass doors, as usual, wave to the security guard, and share a quick smile. In that moment, I didn’t yet know I had taken my last deep breath of fresh air for the next 14 hours. I arrived to my unit to a sea of yellow see-through gowns and blue masks with flimsy plastic attachments.
Their eyes. I should have paid more attention to their eyes. Now it’s hard to recognize my coworkers and friends this way. As I walked past my manager, she handed me a flamingo pink N95 mask and said, “Here. This is your one. Keep it dry and don’t lose it. Sign here.”
I took a deep breath; the air was dry and still not as fresh as it was before those glass doors, but I was used to it. Anxiety hit me as I walked toward the break room for a few minutes of silence before my shift started. The silence was then broken by a blaring alarm reminding me to clock in. It’s time. I take another deep breath, put on my pink armor, and walk onto the floor.
I look at my assignment. All Covid. Last week, it was just one. Now it’s every single one. I can’t breathe. Is my mask on right? Why does my breath smell so bad? I remember brushing my teeth this morning. I only slept an hour but I definitely brushed my teeth.
Maybe it was the cheap, old coffee I found in the back of my cabinet that I made that morning since Starbucks closed down. Okay, I can do this. I get a report from the night nurse. Every patient sounds like he or she is on the verge of death. None of them can breathe.
The nurse’s parting words: “By the way, you probably won’t even take that mask off the whole day. There’s just no time in between patients.” Great. Now I can’t breath. I check in on all my patients. At least my patients and I have something in common.
My hands start to shake. Caffeine definitely becomes less potent in coffee as the years go by, right? My heart is fluttering. Can it be atrial fibrillation, a life-threatening arrhythmia? That’s my cardiac nursing background talking. That’s pretty irrelevant now.
I take another deep breath, except, it doesn’t feel so deep, so I take another. My stomach begins to flip. All my patients are calling for my help at the same time. I run to the bathroom. I rip my mask off as quick as I can, lay my back against the bathroom door with my hand on my chest slowly sliding to the dirty floor.
Breathe, I tell myself. Breathe. I want to call my sister, but I can’t dial. Thoughts roll through my head such as: Is this my new reality? How is everyone wearing their masks, breathing in stale carbon dioxide-filled air for 12-plus hours straight? Everyone seems so calm, so why can’t I pull myself together?
I throw up in the toilet. I start to feel a bit better. I take another two minutes to myself. One last breath of dry air.
I put my armor back on and go into room 2, bed B, burying my own anxiety somewhere. “It’s okay, Mr. Brown, we’re taking care of you. Deep breaths. Just breathe. In through your nose, out through your mouth. I’ll do it with you.” I was saying those words to him as much as I was to myself. I felt calm in the moment and continued on. One hour, one shift at a time.