'A grim initiation': New nurse shares what it was like learning amid pandemic

Kathryn Ivey, RN, a critical care nurse in Nashville, Tenn., detailed her experience as a new nurse starting amid the pandemic — with no baseline for what "normal nursing" looked like — in an op-ed published by Scientific American.

Ms. Ivey became a registered nurse in July 2020 and was immediately assigned to the COVID-19 intensive care unit. For months, she had worked as a nurse intern, watching COVID-19 nurses emerge wearily from patient rooms. 

"Now it was my turn for what became a grim initiation into the world of nursing and medicine," Ms. Ivey wrote. "I learned how to be a nurse behind a respirator and a yellow gown amid the constant beeping and hissing of ventilators that couldn't support failing lungs. I learned how to be a nurse with death constantly at my heels." 

"Everything we did felt futile," Ms. Ivey continued, "and I realized at some point I felt more like a ferryman to death than anything else. Some people lived. ... Most didn't live. By the time they came to us, they were too sick and were beyond the power we had to heal."  

The nurse details a feeling of helplessness, watching patients progress through the stages of disease and calling patient family members so they could talk to the person they loved at least one more time.

"The ICU felt like purgatory," wrote Ms. Ivey. "Like we were torturing these people whose bodies were wrecked beyond hope. And I couldn't shake the feeling that we were failing them." 

She said the feelings followed her home, so she forced herself to get used to death, writing that she "walled it off, pushed it down and did my job."

This spring was the first time Ms. Ivey began to see what it was like to be a nurse in pre-COVID times. She realized plenty of people normally survive the ICU and that her actions could actually save lives. 

"I began to think that soon, we would be free," Ms. Ivey said. "I was wrong."

"We all have so much less to give," the nurse wrote in regard to the current COVID-19 surge. "But the patients don't stop coming. And the anger doesn't stop coming. Underneath that anger, I feel defeated. Nothing we do makes a difference. I don't know what to say that will make people listen to us, to take the basic steps such as masks and vaccination that could be our way out of this nightmare."

"We are haunted by failures now, starting with the failures of policy that allowed human lives to be sacrificed on the altar of the economy and ending with us telling a family that we can do no more," Ms. Ivey wrote. "COVID has made martyrs of us all."

"It didn't have to be like this," the nurse concluded. "Americans have always been individualistic, sometimes to a fault, and I see this more clearly during the pandemic than ever before. We have forgotten that we are all connected, a giant golden web with threads of light among friends, parents, children, siblings. ... The actions of a single person impact the lives of many, and the pandemic illustrates this in the most brutal way."


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