KATHRYN IVEY, an Australian nurse, wrote the following article originally on Twitter. A friend and former colleague, journalist Sandra Lee, recommends that “everyone read this plea from a nurse on the frontline” as COVID-19 strikes ‘the lucky country’ for a third time. . .
I BECAME AN ICU NURSE at the end of July 2020, during one of the first peaks of COVID-19 when it was all still so new. I learned how to be a nurse behind a respirator and a yellow gown, amidst the constant beeping and hissing of ventilators that couldn’t support failing lungs.
Because I was so new, I had no baseline for what normal nursing looked like; I just had a vague sense that it couldn’t look like this.
The unit was bleak and everything we did felt futile, and I realised at some point I felt more like a ferryman to death than anything else.
Some people lived, if they never got to the point they needed bi-level positive airway pressure (BiPap) through a ventilator that helps with breathing. Most didn’t. By the time they came to us they were too sick, their lungs too shredded, kidneys already failing and blood already clotting and so often beyond the power we had to heal.
I would watch, feeling helpless, as they went from a nasal cannula to a Vapotherm to a BiPap, and then when their chests started heaving and they started sweating I knew with heavy dread that soon they would be intubated. And here are places we can’t call you back from.
I got used to the death. I walled it off, pushed it down and did my job. I advocated for death with dignity, with as much kindness and comfort as we could muster, and very early on accepted that we couldn’t save everyone. And then numbers started going down.
We went from three COVID ICUs to two, then down to one. I started to see what it was like to be a nurse pre-COVID and realised how many people normally survive. Suddenly, the things I did mattered; my actions actually saved lives and no longer was death my constant silent companion.
The more time I spent out of the COVID unit, the more I realised exactly how bad it had been; all the vents, the continuous renal replacement therapy (CRRT) providing support for critically ill patients with acute kidney injury – the relentless march towards death that we could hold off for a time but never stop. Walking through the much smaller COVID unit was like walking through a graveyard.
This time around is so much worse. We all have so much less to give. We are still bearing the fresh and heavy grief of the past year and trying to find somewhere to put all this anger. But the patients don’t stop coming. Neither does the anger.
Underneath that anger, I feel defeated. Nothing we do makes a difference. The world spins on, oblivious and belligerent, as we fight to save the tidal wave of victims coming our way. With fewer staff and resources and a lot less of ourselves to give.
What can I say that will make people listen?
I wish I could snap so many people out of their selfish stupor but I can’t. Instead, I am forced to watch as people learn the hard way: with a tube down their throats, a “Code blue! Code blue!” and the crack of a sternum.
What inevitably follows is a 3am phone call to a fearful family, my phone held in hands still trembling from the rounds of CPR, voice shaking, knowing that I am about to shatter someone’s world. You learned the hard way and now I see it through. I carry the weight of your choices and the pain they cause.
And it need not be like this.