Fear, death & trauma

AS COVID-19 continues its march across the globe, one Jamaican’s experience with the Grim Reaper in the United States came just two and a half years into her nursing career, when she had to prepare two of her patients stricken with the infectious disease for the morgue.

“The first was a very healthy-looking patient, he was not on oxygen before; then another patient — she died. This was my first experience preparing a body for the morgue. When we went downstairs [in the health facility], we found out the morgue was full. Another floor had to be made vacant for bodies to go,” the woman, who requested anonymity, told the Jamaica Observer from her home in New York last Friday.

For the health care professional, who said she “had been taught what to do before, but not with an actual body”, the furthest thing from her mind was that she would one day be tasked with handling the body of someone who had passed from a highly contagious disease after the trauma of caring for them. Though she had an assistant for the procedure, that did not lessen the shock factor.

“COVID doesn’t just take the person with an underlying condition, it doesn’t respect anyone; and one may think it’s the elderly or the person in a wheelchair, [but] no. I have seen strong persons walking up and down, persons bedridden, persons of all different conditions, get COVID-19,” she said.

In addition to the two people who virtually passed away in her hands, the health care professional said other patients in the facility where she works have also died as a result of the disease while still others are being treated — some for whom recovery seems unlikely.

“COVID makes no exceptions. Patients and administration are being infected… it’s not a respecter of persons. I just heard of a bishop I knew who died yesterday from COVID, and just now I got a call to say somebody I spoke to two days ago, the ambulance just picked her up. She works in a hospital and presently she’s now one of them in the hospital,” she shared.

The ravages of the virus, she said, have disrupted lives at every level.

“So many persons; a very good friend of mine called and told me she tested positive. She has to quarantine herself in her home and away from her son. There are so many people — other staff on my job, either they are sick and home or they have lost a family member,” she continued.

The Jamaican said she has even considered walking away from her job because of the risk posed to her family.
“I go home every day, I isolate myself. I am very protective. My daughters are home, they have no reason to go outside. My older daughter works from home [and] my other daughter, who is in high school, she does her schoolwork online. She has 13 allergies so I have to be careful around her and now it’s spring. If she is ever exposed to certain trees or cats, she has a respiratory problem — so that situation and COVID-19 doesn’t mix,” she noted.

Wearing masks have become the norm, she said.

“I live on disinfecting… I wear masks in my house. Today is my day off and I am masked; I have my daughters to think about,” she told the Observer.

She said while she has made every effort to keep herself and her family safe, her sanity is anchored by her faith in the Almighty, given the lack of counselling or debriefing for individuals such as herself during this pandemic.

“They had a designated floor where they would send all patients who were having a fever without being tested, and I was asked at one point to go there… that was when I became really fearful and I voiced my opinion and it didn’t go over so well,” she shared.

The absence of any sounding board, shifts which can stretch as long as 15 hours at a time in order to fill gaps left by other colleagues who have fallen ill, make a powerful cocktail for falling apart.

“This is not just 15 hours of physical work but 15 hours of mental stress, because these people are like family. That’s one of the problems we are having, a shortage of staff — people are calling in sick… that is part of what makes it so hard, you are physically tired… It becomes very taxing and mentally draining because you don’t know where you or that patient will end up,” she pointed out.

There is, therefore, only one divider between her and a breakdown, she said.

“My faith has kept me going. I believe that my body is the temple of the living God and I tell God everyday, ‘This is where you live and no COVID can affect a body you live in.’ My pastor and the prayer of so many family members, my church family, and love from my patients, have kept me,” she insisted.

In the meantime, life consists of N95 masks, surgical masks, gowns and gloves, and treating every contact as though they are infected. However, she said the N95 masks are jealously guarded.

“We wear N95 masks and you have to put a second pair of mask over that one. You cannot get an N95 mask every day, as a matter of fact, this is my second N95 mask that I got yesterday (last Thursday). I was told, ‘Let it last until next week.’ You are given the surgical mask on entrance to the building, so I put the surgical mask over the N95 so when I exit a room, I can take off the surgical mask and dump it and still have the N95 mask. I wear gloves and gowns, which are disposable. Sometimes there is a shortage of gowns and if there is, we put on a plastic bag. We have all the necessary sanitisers and soaps, and unlimited supplies of gloves. I wear five pairs of gloves going in, I take off three coming out, and I wear two going in to my normal patients,” she shared.

Asked about her first order of business when COVID-19 departs the scene, she said: “Right now there is so much going on I can’t think about tomorrow. My only thought about tomorrow is that if anything happens to me, my life is ready in Christ so I can go home.”