Most nurses are prepared to handle obstacles like long and busy shifts that leave little time for lunch and bathroom breaks, said Saint Alphonsus nurse Jessica Parrott.
But working through a pandemic has brought a whole new layer of challenges that have tested health care workers’ resilience.
“The emotional toll on (hospital) staff is high,” West Valley Medical Center CEO Betsy Hunsicker said.
The Idaho Press talked to three nurses at hospitals across the Treasure Valley who are working the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. For each of them, the novel coronavirus has changed their lives in and out of work.
One thing COVID-19 hasn’t changed about Parrott’s daily routine — she always needs a coffee before she starts her day.
“That’s priority No. 1 of every single day of my life,” Parrott said.
Parrott, of Nampa, is a registered nurse working in the intensive care unit of the Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise. She typically works 12-hour shifts three days a week, although she said those shifts often extend to 13 or 14 hours long.
She gets an early start of about 5:30 a.m., providing time for her required screening for COVID-19 symptoms at the hospital’s entrance before her 7 a.m. shift.
For the past few months, Parrott said her hospital’s cardiac ICU, which has about 10 beds, has been largely full, mostly with COVID-19 patients. When the pandemic began, Parrott said she was initially concerned that she would not be safe at work. In Idaho, 2,475 health care workers have been infected with COVID-19 as of Thursday.
But the hospital’s extra safety protocols for staff have eased Parrott’s fears.
In addition to screening staff for symptoms before entering the building, everyone inside the hospital is required to wear a mask. Inside a room with a COVID-19 patient, staff must wear more intense protective gear, including an N95 mask, another mask over that, a face shield, a protective gown and gloves. A Saint Al’s infection prevention team is in the ICU regularly to review proper safety procedures with staff and disinfect surfaces, Parrott said.
Parrott follows some extra steps of her own after work to keep herself and her family safe. She leaves her scrubs at work to be cleaned, and when she gets home she leaves her shoes outside the door and goes straight to the shower.
Parrott lives with her husband and two sons, ages 12 and 14. On a typical work day, Parrott gets to spend about an hour with her sons before bed. Her husband recently quit his job as a juvenile corrections officer to care for their kids.
The higher demand for health care combined with hospital staffing shortages have caused many nurses, including Parrott, to pull extra shifts.
Parrott said dreams about work often disrupt her sleep, and those dreams have increased since the pandemic began. Her job was already physically demanding before the pandemic, and since it began she’s working even harder. But the toughest thing to deal with, she said, is the emotional weight.
Every day, Parrott cares for patients struggling to survive. Saint Al’s doesn’t usually allow visitors for patients currently, unless they are on the brink of death, so Parrott said nurses take on the role of caring for patients in a medical and emotional sense.
“Sometimes, you feel like you are their only connection,” she said.
The emotional toll is so great that Parrott said she and the other nurses in the ICU rely on each other to get through it. She said her co-workers often meet in the hospital parking lot to talk and decompress after their shifts.
Parrott also manages by doing her best to keep her work at work. She said she listens to music or an audiobook during her commute, and she spends her days off with her family in ways that feel relaxing for them, often by spending time outdoors hiking or camping.
In addition to working 12-hour shifts, Linnae Frisby also juggles online classes for graduate school and is a mom to three children ages 2, 3 and 5.
“There’s days where I think, ‘Why am I doing this?’” Frisby said.
Frisby works part-time — two 12- to 13-hour shifts per week — as a registered nurse in West Valley Medical Center’s ICU in Caldwell.
When Frisby arrives at work, she gets her temperature taken and puts on a mask. In her unit, she changes into her scrubs, puts on a more protective mask and goggles, and meets with the other nurses to go over the plan for the day. Each nurse is assigned to care for a specific set of patients. Since the pandemic began, most of Frisby’s patients have COVID-19, she said.
When the pandemic began, Frisby said she and her fellow nurses feared they wouldn’t be able to protect themselves. West Valley Medical Center prepared in advance, but when cases first started getting reported in Idaho, the influx of hospitalizations was slow.
“Then all of a sudden, it was like a hammer dropped, and we were full,” Frisby said.
West Valley Medical Center was flooded with patients and met its full capacity in July, Hunsicker said. Frisby said when the hospital was at its busiest, she would often take two or three extra shifts per week. That has since slowed down, and she said she only takes about one extra shift per week.
During the early stages of the pandemic, Frisby said safety protocols inside the hospital were changing rapidly as officials were trying to determine which practices were safest. One example was the different types of masks that were required in certain areas of the hospital.
Currently, Frisby said the hospital has different levels of masks required for specific sections. In the ICU, Frisby said she wears a level 3 mask and goggles, but when she is inside a room with a COVID-19 patient, she wears an N95 mask with a face shield and a protective gown.
Frisby said she feels safe at work, but there were some days when she didn’t want to go in because of the emotional drain.
Working in the ICU, Frisby’s biggest priority is keeping her patients alive. For COVID-19 patients, she said their treatments depend on the severity of the case. For some severe cases, she said hospital staff will “prone” patients, which means turning them onto their stomachs to help them breathe properly. Parrott said she also does this at Saint Al’s, and it sometimes takes up to six nurses to accomplish.
Even though nurses do everything they can, some of their patients still die. More than 430 Idahoans have died from COVID-19 related causes; just over 1,660 have been hospitalized, and another 19,400 are estimated to have recovered.
Frisby said it’s disheartening to treat patients who don’t recover or die suddenly. She also relies on her fellow nurses to get by, and said she would have likely quit her job by now if it wasn’t for her team.
Along with her job, Frisby said she tries to devote one day each week to classwork for graduate school. She is working to become a nurse practitioner, something she’s wanted to do for a long time. Though her schedule is stressful now, Frisby said once she finishes her education it will free up her time and be better in the long run.
Any extra time Frisby has, she tries to spend with her children.
“I don’t want my kids to think I’m too busy,” Frisby said.
Michael Clifford begins his work day by finding out which hospital he will be working at. He’s a registered nurse in acute care for St. Luke’s, and regularly works at three of the health systems’ Treasure Valley hospitals in Boise, Meridian and Nampa.
Clifford lives alone in downtown Boise, and wakes up at 5 a.m. on work days to walk his dog before finding out which hospital he is assigned to around 6 a.m. Working in acute care, Clifford treats patients who are not quite ill enough to be in the ICU, but are nearly there. Part of his job is determining when patients need to be sent to the ICU.
“My patients are very sick,” Clifford said. “Some of them can’t catch their breath.”
Early on in the pandemic, Clifford said St. Luke’s changed its safety guidelines daily based on differing health recommendations. He said some hospitals would place COVID-19 patients on separate floors, while others didn’t. He said it was especially confusing managing the protocols while he worked at different hospitals each day.
The safety protocols St. Luke’s staff follow now differ by location, but Clifford said all locations require masks inside the building. In a room with a COVID-19 patient, Clifford wears an N95 mask along with other protective gear.
In July, St. Luke’s nurse practitioner Samantha Hickey, 45, died from COVID-19 complications. Clifford said he did not know Hickey, but he knows other co-workers who have contracted the disease. He said he has never felt unsafe at work.
“I would have stopped immediately if I felt unsafe,” Clifford said.
Clifford works with about six other nurses in his unit. If a nurse is assigned a COVID-19 patient, they are not allowed to treat any patient with a different ailment, he said.
Though he doesn’t work in intensive care, Clifford said he still sees patients die on a regular basis. During the pandemic, he said the emotional toll is even greater because nurses are dealing with families who want to visit their sick loved ones and can’t. Clifford said for many of his patients, his time treating them is the longest human interaction they get.
Seeing the effects of the pandemic firsthand, Clifford said it is especially frustrating for him to see people spreading misinformation about COVID-19 and downplaying its severity. Though he said the hospitals he works at are not as full as they were earlier this summer, he said the pandemic is still in “full swing,” and it’s disheartening to see people refuse to follow simple safety protocols, such as wearing a mask and social distancing.
“It’s something that should seem to be common sense,” Clifford said.