Over 15 million Americans have now contracted COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. But behind millions of these cases are emergency responders and hospital staff, including doctors and nurses, working every day on the front lines to ensure that every person has a fighting chance against this virus. This is the story of one of those health professionals: Hannah Teasley, a 25-year-old traveling nurse who worked in COVID-19 intensive care units in Nevada and California this year before finally returning to her home state of North Carolina last month.
I moved from North Carolina to Reno, Nevada, in January. My husband graduated last year and I said, 'Let's just go travel while we can.' So being a travel nurse sounded ideal. We didn't know we would be trapped halfway across the country as the result of a pandemic.
Reno was supposed to be a three-month assignment, but I got stuck there for seven months, strictly due to COVID-19. They told us if you're a nurse, please don't travel outside a 100-mile radius. They implied if you did so, you might be let go. But that wasn't true because they really needed us.
We actually didn't have too many patients at first. I don't want to make it sound better than it was though because the patients we did have were really sick.
People don't really understand what COVID is like unless they go through it, or like me, experience it daily as a health professional. There are a lot of long-term impacts for those who contract this virus.
'Issues for life'
Early on, I had this patient who was 24, and he caught COVID while working in a nursing home. Apparently, the facility was too cheap to buy them enough masks, so they told them to use a mask for two days and then flip it over. The guy was on the ventilator for over a month. We had to code him five times. It was horrible, but he survived. I'm surprised he survived to be honest, but he's going to have issues for life.
A lot of the patients also need to have a tracheostomy, commonly known as a trach, because they need to be on a ventilator long-term. That's where the medical team will cut a hole in the throat in order to get a tube in your windpipe so you're able to breathe. Sometimes it's reversible once a patient gets better, but sometimes it's not. When it's not, that means patients will breathe out of a hole in their neck for the rest of their lives. And a lot of these people will never be able to eat again. They may always be on a ventilator.
More and more, patients actually have scars on their faces from being on the ventilator so long. We're starting to call it COVID face. Fifty years from now, will people see someone with scars on their cheeks and know they were on a ventilator with COVID?
Most patients who are hospitalized go through phases where they get better and then they get worse for a while. The lucky ones get better again.
'I wish they could see what I see'
After working in Reno, I took a contract in Santa Maria, California, about three hours north of Los Angeles. Now, I'm back in North Carolina in a full-time position that pays roughly $60 an hour, plus a stipend for food and housing.
Yet no matter where the job takes me, many of the challenges remain the same. As hard as it is to see a patient not doing well, it's working with the families that's the hardest part of the job sometimes.
As a nurse, I'm normally the person who communicates with the family. I'm the only one who knows what's actually going on. In the hospitals I've worked at, we don't have nursing assistants and the doctors never go in the rooms. Ever. Unless there's a code.
So generally, the doctors aren't with the patients as much as I am and typically ask me for updates on their status. I'm the one who also listens to your heart and announces that you're dead. I'm the one who's going to bring a device with FaceTime in the room so you can say goodbye to your family.
And it's frustrating because a lot of times, the family will ask to talk to the doctor, rather than talk to me. But the truth is the doctor asks us how the patient is doing before they talk to the family. Not that the doctor doesn't like to see the patient, but they always ask me and they get the exact same information that I'd give the family. I wish families would trust the nurses a little bit more.
I think it comes down to the fact that the family typically has so much hope. They have so much hope that their family member is going to survive — even when it's the end. And I wish they could see what I see because they're suffering so bad.
A lot of people say, 'You're not doing enough' or 'You're killing my father, son, whatever.' But the truth is we're trying our best. There are times where there's nothing more we can do. We just try to help them survive.
As a Durham native, I have family in North Carolina. Yet due to the pandemic, I haven't been able to see them much this year. But when I was able to travel to see them in September, for the first time in nine months, they refused to wear masks around me and pretty much said that COVID was a hoax.
I get it. They're from a smaller town where it hasn't really affected them. They haven't seen with their own eyes, so they don't get it. But what bothers me is that they don't have any sympathy for someone who actually has seen what I've seen. I feel like it's insulting. They know where I work.
I've seen so many people who would be alive if the virus hadn't gotten them, very healthy people. We've had situations where young parents are in the hospital, and their kids have to say goodbye to them on FaceTime.
A couple of months ago, I had this patient in his 50s pass away, but his son was my age. When the team was coding him, I was on the phone with his son the whole time. 'They're doing CPR. They're checking a pulse. He still doesn't have a pulse.' For 30 minutes, he didn't have a pulse. And I just had to be on the phone with his son, who was listening to all this from the outside. And that's really sad.
Finally, I had to be the one to say, 'He's at peace now. I'm sorry you couldn't make it.'
It's been about a month since I left California, and I can still see the faces of those who made it and those who didn't. I still hear the voices of the loved ones on FaceTime crack when they are told there is nothing else we can do. Funny how you can hear someone's life crumble even through a language barrier.
But there are good memories too. Every time I hear the song "Happy," I can see the patients who did make it, who were able to roll out in a wheelchair to see their families after months of fighting to escape death. It is nothing short of a miracle. Both their lives and the lives of those of us who cared for them are forever altered. Even though the patients may not remember me, everyone in the ICU will remember them. Their bravery and courage is humbling.
This year I grew as a nurse, and I hope that in the future we can show even more compassion toward each other as Americans. I will continue to advocate for my patients as well as myself for a better tomorrow. There will always be hope, and for that I am grateful.