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Pa. nurses after 22 months of COVID-19 and a new surge: ‘It is so defeating’

In emergency rooms and intensive care units, nurses grapple with the emotional toll, with no end in sight. “You can’t heal a knife wound with the knife still in it,” one said.

An ambulance leaves the emergency room at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center in April 2020.
An ambulance leaves the emergency room at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center in April 2020.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

It’s been 660 days, and few have experienced the collective trauma of the coronavirus pandemic as vividly as frontline health workers.

They have held the hands of people as they died alone. They showed up to work while others stayed home. They pushed personal heartache to the backs of their minds to get through the day.

As the United States enters a third calendar year of the pandemic, and braces to see whether this omicron- and delta-fueled case surge will cause hospitalizations to spike further, we talked to four nurses, who described units full of COVID-19 patients, most of whom are unvaccinated and many of whom are now skewing younger.

They described the emotional toll — “defeating,” “disheartening,” “frustrating,” and “exhausting.”

These are their words, condensed for clarity:

Becky Murphy, 36, emergency room nurse at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children

“It’s honestly the worst I’ve ever worked my entire career in health care, and we have the least amount of staff ever.”

“The wait times are just exorbitant throughout the whole region — between 6, 10, 12 hours. If you’re not severe enough, you’re going to wait.”

“Senior nurses are typically out in triage, in the waiting room all day with patients who are sick and some of them likely have COVID-19.”

» READ MORE: Philly is averaging record-high COVID-19 cases, but officials hope this wave will have fewer hospitalizations

“Most people are in their worst days. We are the person they can take it out on. I try not to take it personally. All you can do is give people snacks, juice, blankets, maybe some medications. You can’t get them back faster.”

“We don’t even have ancillary staff sometimes. If there are no techs, we do their jobs. If there’s no secretary, we answer the phone.”

“In the beginning we didn’t see a lot of COVID patients. The pediatric pandemic was different from the adult pandemic. The last two weeks, everyone has been testing positive.”

“I wish [people] knew how hard we were working, and that they would stay home and not come to the hospital [unless seriously ill]. Use telehealth. Get a rapid test. Get vaccinated. Get your kids vaccinated.”

Leigh Straw, 52, nurse on a COVID-19 unit at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center-Altoona

“We thought [vaccination] was the light at the end of the tunnel. We thought we were close. It’s really disheartening. [In 2020], it made for nice TV that people were saluting all these workers that showed up every day. Now, we’re forgotten.”

“We get treated differently from our patients this time around. We have patients on a COVID unit who say they don’t have it.”

Some people “look at you sideways and shake their heads” if they see you in public wearing scrubs.

“Our vaccinated patients are faring very well. It’s our unvaccinated ones who are having the harder time. A lot of our vaccinated ones are elderly people who are there for a couple days.”

» READ MORE: Full ICUs, 100 dying a day: The winter coronavirus surge is straining Pa.’s health-care system

“I really try to not judge. Some of [the unvaccinated] are so far gone in their beliefs, in buying into that big-picture lie. They’re too embarrassed to turn back.”

“Once they are our patients, I don’t care about their vaccination status. With them 12½ hours a shift, we get to know them. We hold their hands when they’re scared. We hold their hands when they pass.”

“Our pastoral care services, it’s mainly there for the patients, [but] they see [staff] when things aren’t going well. They often make a round, see if there’s anything we want to talk about. I’m kind of agnostic, and I appreciate it.”

“I don’t think I’ll be able to [fully] talk about it until it’s over.”

“You can’t heal a knife wound with the knife still in it.”

Nichole Persing, 39, nursing director of patient care services at Lehigh Valley Health Network-Cedar Crest in Allentown who manages a COVID-19 unit

My day “usually begins prior to 5 a.m., calling the unit and getting a rundown of what the night was like, how many patients are on high-flow oxygen therapy, one step below being placed on a ventilator.”

“They feel very defeated, because they’re having such a difficult time breathing. A lot of patients feel like, ‘I’m ready to give up.’ ”

“Yesterday we had a young patient. He FaceTimed his children to say goodbye, because he was going to be placed on a ventilator. He knew he wasn’t going to make it. It’s really hard to see that. I have children that age.”

“A lot of them say, ‘I wish I had just gotten the vaccine. Why didn’t I just get the vaccine?’ ”

“I still remember getting the phone call that I was able to receive the vaccine. I felt like I could breathe again. I had hope. There were tears in my eyes when I got the vaccine. To see us in the state we’re in, it’s defeating.

“I came into this profession to help people get better. With COVID, it’s just not really possible. It is so defeating going into work every day feeling like that and going home every day feeling like that. You want to make a difference. It’s hard to feel like you are now.

“Every Thursday, I say: ‘What was your highlight of the week?’ [One day], one of my nurses broke down in tears, and it’s OK to do that, too. Sometimes that is just necessary.

“On the outside, everything still feels really calm and collected and really normal. I haven’t felt normal in two years. I wish [people] understood how hard we work every day, how much effort it takes to just fight this every day. Maybe not necessarily understand it, but just respect that.”

Patrick Kelly, 50, medical intensive care unit nurse at Einstein Medical Center

“It is scary. I was [at the hospital] on Christmas Eve and Christmas. I left on the 26th and we had 45 patients [hospital-wide] who had COVID-19. Last night, we had 97. In two days, it more than doubled.”

“I don’t know who is going to staff the hospital if a couple of us come down with it. We were talking last night: A year ago, we knew of people who knew people who had COVID. It wasn’t so close to home. My son tested positive three weeks ago,” but was able to isolate, recover, and not infect other family members.

In the ICU, “I don’t have a lot of good stories. We lost a patient the other night, the family was outside the room and desperately wanted to get in the room. They had to watch their daughter pass away through a glass.”

“When my family is together and we’re at home, just us, not going anywhere, [I can forget about work]. As soon as you need to go out and get a gallon of milk, you’re right back in it.

“In the ICU, we deal with life and death all day. You have to [find levity] or you’ll be the one to burn out. Even though it’s frustrating and scary as hell sometimes, I have to say, ‘We’re going to get through this.’ ”