deployed recently as an ICU RN
New Orleans, LA
This is part of our 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.
To be fair, I volunteered. I thought we were being underutilized in the clinic. So I was deployed to the ICU. Then I was chided, “be careful what you wish for.”
I worked overtime. I watched people die for 13 hours at a time, several days in a row. I watched blood clot as it was being pulled from a central line, with the team watching in disbelief from the hall, peering in through the window. I gave a nervous wife updates on her husband as a bedside autopsy was being performed in the next room. Roaming the halls of each unit, starting first with reusing gowns, then reusing full PPE the whole shift. My hands would sweat beneath the same gloves for hours. My breath would feel as if it was sticking to my face, smothering me. The fear of becoming a patient, amid so much chaos, was palpable. Realizing I didn’t have a will, I told my husband the names of who I would want to care for me if needed. To run my ventilator. My children would hesitate to be near me, even after I had spent an hour in the shower scrubbing myself.
We used hand sanitizer made by female prisoners upstate. We shared a spray bottle of cleaner to clean our gear, eventually running out of paper towels. We would spray and let the gear drip dry. I wept as I brought our portable phone in a plastic bag into patients’ rooms so their families could speak to them, even if just for a minute. I’m sure they heard me cry, as my tears moistened the top of my mask, seeping through the top edge. “Can she hear me? Does he seem to recognize my voice?” Yes, yes, they did, I assured them.
And then it was over. The cases slowed, the halls emptied, and I was set back right where we had been, “redeployed,” they said. Dropped back into clinic, almost as if nothing had happened. It has been over a week, and I struggle to put the memories of my last ICU patient to rest. I see the look in his eyes, seeing a glimpse of himself in the mirror thoughtfully installed directly across from his bed. Staring at the tracheostomy he had acquired just a day before, mouthing words with no voice to follow. He was actually one of the lucky ones. I hadn’t seen anyone get to this point of recovery.
I can hear the beeping of the pumps, the near-constant chiming of alarms of ventilators. It had been part of the norm for me once, but that two and a half years away were long enough to forget. The seemingly endless search for the medicine my patients needed. There was always something running out.
I struggle now when people thank me for my service, because I am not a hero. Or a soldier. I did what I should have done. Though they were rusty, to not put my skills to use would have made me rot with guilt. Yet now I rot from what I’ve seen. The noises of the ICU buzz in the depths of my mind, like a fuzz pedal being stomped.
Norma lives in New Orleans, with her lovely children and dashing husband. She gives great thanks to the incredible nurses whom she worked beside, her mother-in-law, her Uncle Mike, and the amazing friends who have supported her. She enjoys Tillandsias and all things ABBA.