April 15, 2020 / 12:06 PM / 3 months ago

A day fighting COVID-19: U.S. hospital staff share hardest moments on shift

BALTIMORE, Md. (Reuters) - The shifts are long and the scenes are heartbreaking inside a Maryland hospital where nurses and doctors have been treating coronavirus patients for weeks, unable to let family inside to visit loved ones on their death beds.

Julia Trainor, 23, a registered nurse who is caring for COVID-19 patients at a surgical intensive care unit (ICU), poses for a photograph after a 14-hour shift, outside the hospital where she works, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, Maryland, U.S., April 8, 2020. REUTERS/Rosem Morton

One of the hardest moments of a recent work day for registered nurse Julia Trainor was intubating a patient, and then calling the patient’s husband so he could talk to his wife. He was not allowed in the hospital.

“I had to put him on the phone and hold the phone to her ear as he told her that he loved her so much, and then I had to wipe away her tears,” says Trainor, who works in a surgical intensive care unit. “I’m used to seeing very sick patients and I’m used to patients dying, but nothing quite like this.”

The highly infectious COVID-19 disease caused by the novel coronavirus has infected more than 580,000 people across the United States and killed nearly 24,000.

In Maryland, where residents have been ordered to stay at home since March 30 to stem the spread of the disease, around 9,000 have tested positive for the virus and more than 260 have died.

After finishing what for many was a more than 12-hour shift, some nurses and doctors at one hospital shared with Reuters the hardest moments of their days. The hospital asked that it not be named.

The medical workers agreed that one of the toughest parts of the job - more than the exhausting schedule or adjusting to work in a new unit - was witnessing the toll on patients and families.

Because of the hospital’s no-visitor policy, which was implemented to prevent further spread of the virus, the medical staff must care for the patients’ physical needs and offer as much emotional support as they can muster in the absence of the patients’ families.

“The hardest moment during the shift was just seeing COVID patients die helpless and without their family members beside them,” says Ernest Capadngan, a nurse in the hospital’s biocontainment unit.

Communicating with the families has weighed heavily on the hospital staff. Staff cannot bend the no-visit rules, even when a family calls in desperation.

“I had a patient fall out of bed today and I had to call his wife and tell her and she couldn’t come see him, even though she pleaded and begged to come see him,” says Tracey Wilson, a nurse practitioner.

“One of the hardest moments was having to see a family member of a COVID patient say goodbye over an iPad,” says Tiffany Fare, a nurse in the biocontainment unit. “You can’t see your loved one and then they’re gone.”

There are very few opportunities to rest during a shift, although colleagues look out for one another and try to cover for each other when someone needs a break.

Cheryll Mack, a registered nurse in the emergency room, says she tries to get outside for 15 minutes during the day to breathe.

“It has given me relief, just fresh air,” Mack says.

Each shift concludes with a similar decontamination drill. Nurses and doctors must remove their personal protective equipment and shower immediately before coming in contact with their family at home.

“I take a very long, very hot shower. And then I usually sit on the couch and... read a book or watch some mindless reality show in order to destress,” says Martine Bell, a nurse practitioner.

Laura Bontempo, an emergency medicine physician, says she removes her work clothing and gear in a decontamination tent she has set up outside her home, and then wraps herself in a towel and runs inside to shower.

Then she puts the scrubs in the washing machine by themselves to not contaminate any other items.

Slideshow (11 Images)

Meghan Sheehan, 27, a nurse practitioner, says she drives home each night without turning on the radio and uses the quiet time to reflect on her shift and her patients. When she gets home, she tries hard not to dwell on the day.

“I go home, I shower immediately and try to have dinner with family, and try to not talk about it,” she said. “Nighttime is definitely the hardest because you’re constantly thinking about what the next day will bring.”

For a photo essay see reut.rs/2wFeik7

Writing by Gabriella Borter in New York, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien

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