Nurse, Medical Intensive Care Unit
University of Colorado Hospital
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.
The future tense lost all credibility on March 23rd, 2020. It was on that breezy Monday that I tested positive for COVID-19 and about the time when, for many Americans, the future tense, like local businesses, became empty and in need of support. No one spoke about the future safely.
Things will be normal again?
We will survive?
Those words struggle to grow roots.
My time with COVID-19 was defined less by my symptoms and more by anxiety. I had a tiny spare room, access to unlimited news coverage, and plenty of time to fully and comprehensively freak out. Every news story was present tense: the death tolls, the lockdowns. It was like deciding to meditate for the first time after tumbling into shark-infested water. Sure, you’re in the moment, but the moment is terrifying.
Now, weeks later, the future tense is still a minefield. I returned to work as an ICU nurse, but for some of the patients in our three COVID ICUs, mostly the elderly and the otherwise ill, there will never be a future tense again.
Anecdotally, people identify a peaceful death to occur in their sleep, surrounded by loved ones. Instead, patients with COVID-19 only see their family on a phone. Sleep is also rare, so most get a simulacrum of rest — the type that comes from morphine and mu-receptors. Administering their morphine, I feel like they’re on fire and my water jug contains gasoline — they’re just different types of accelerants.
The current pandemic reveals by magnification the holes in our healthcare system. Minorities are often more vulnerable to illness. People lose their jobs and their health insurance. The wealthy can easily purchase tests that are being rationed amongst thousands. We neglected primary care and mental health and now illness is here to collect our debt.
These problems are not new to the ICU, but the rain has turned to rivers. I am concerned that when the sky clears we’ll doff our waterproof jackets, glance back at those washed away, and continue to allow people to lift their heads only as high as the money they can stand on.
These circumstances make me marvel at how privileged we are most of the time. How we use the future tense so confidently, as if it wasn’t simply our words dissolving into ether.
We built a healthcare system that can treat a deadly diabetic emergency blindfolded — practically by algorithm — but still gets flop sweats talking about affordable daily insulin. Coronavirus is the shark, but as a nurse I can assure you that before the news arrived to cover a new predator, socioeconomically disadvantaged people were drowning in the same water. I think that if acceptance is admitting there’s a new threat, hope is the belief we’re more capable together than if we scatter. Hope is an equitable healthcare system that restores the future tense to our side, strong and full of swagger, to tell us we will survive. We will be OK. And we will believe it.
Jason Hayes is an ICU nurse currently working in a COVID-19 ICU in Denver.