Cardiac Intensive Care Unit, RN
This essay is part of our new series, Flattened By the Curve, which features the voices of doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, and others on the front lines against COVID-19. For information on how to submit, click here.
I am not a soldier. I am a nurse. And I am not “on the front.” I am the front.
I have coronavirus. Had, I guess. A mild case. Home recovering, not sick enough to be a patient but too sick to be at work. I walk twenty steps to the bathroom and my heart rate is 130 beats per minute.
Thirty-eight days since exposure, and I’m waiting to hear if I qualify for short-term disability.
My boss sent me an email this morning. She said if I don’t qualify, I will be required to return to work. To the front. If I refuse or am unable, they will consider my position to be resigned, best wishes for my health and future. I walk up nine steps to the bedroom and my heartrate is 150 bpm, and I’m gasping for air. No ICU in the country will employ me. I can’t pass a physical.
But you wanted news from the front. I’m trying to write from there, but the front of my mind isn’t on the coronavirus. I don’t want to talk about COVID-19, or the smell of plastic, or the metal whir of the drills when they were building the COVID unit, or the way uncertainty coated every surface despite the Purell and the gowns and the gloves and the mask.
I want to talk about blankets — soft fibers tightly woven, the warmer stacked with them, the way I layered them on my patients for their comfort, and now mine. I can’t feel the fibers under gloves. I want to talk about soup. About mixing broth and pepper and dehydrated vegetables and noodles in the kind of alchemy that occurs only at 2 a.m. when neither of you can sleep: my patient, queasy yet craving warm comfort, and me, holding vigil. But I can’t smell soup through an N95. In fact, I can’t smell much, anymore.
But you asked for news from the front.
Another email from work. Occupational Medicine requires an update on my status. But I don’t want to talk about the way my joints burn, how my heart lurches sideways in my chest when I sit up, how I sleep best elevated on two pillows. I am a nurse. I have coronavirus.
My friend texted me from Detroit, angry. They are out of body bags. Not a single patient he has touched in over two weeks has survived. His tears leak through the spaces between the words.
I wish I could help. I lay in bed, propped on two pillows, exhausted from the act of being awake, eating a meal, breathing. I wish I could help. I wish I could give you news from the front.
Eve is an RN who has worked in critical care for over a decade. You can find them on twitter @browofjustice, where they almost never post about being a nurse, except when they have something important to say. Their most difficult work before now is “I Will Not Cry,” an open-access journal article available through Annals of ATS.