We’ve cared for people in their 20s and 30s, and that has been confronting – most of my colleagues are the same age
Working as a nurse in an intensive care unit is busy at the best of times. It becomes something else entirely during a pandemic.
This second wave is a lot different to the first wave. Last year when we were caring for Covid patients we had one layer of protection, which was our PPE. It turned out to be very effective, given that no one in the unit contracted the virus.
We have two layers of protection this year – PPE and the vaccine. One of the differences from last year is that we’re up against a more contagious version of Covid with the ICU nursealong with a plethora of misinformation within the community about the virus and vaccines. I’ve seen lots of people reassuring each other that this variant isn’t any worse as it isn’t deadlier, which is true. But it’s more contagious, so when more people catch this variant it makes for more work.
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The second wave also feels different from the first one. More confronting. The ICU has filled up quicker and with that a much broader age bracket has been coming in. Last year it was mostly people older than 60, with a few in their 50s. This year we’ve cared for people in their 20s and 30s, and that has been confronting considering that most of my colleagues are the same age.
Before the start of this wave, we – like the entire country – had become a bit complacent. We weren’t caring for Covid patients so we almost forgot about them. We were working with our regular traumas and big-operation patients. It was a case of out of sight out of mind.
But our nursing consultants and educators kept their fingers on the pulse, so when it came to preparing for this wave, they were all over it. And with it came the sense of “this again”. Our unit has an area set up to deal with airborne outbreaks so we moved non-Covid patients out to accommodate the Covid-19 cases coming in.
As the cases grow in the community we’ve been getting more admissions to hospital, naturally. At the same time, we’re still getting our regular admissions of old men falling off ladders, overdoses and emergency surgeries. A great burden is being placed on our healthcare system and I can see the anxiety etched into my colleagues’ faces.
It’s strange seeing a team that is competent and confident come into a shift with an air of uncertainty, but it’s not as strange as caring for a Covid patient who does not believe Covid exists.
It’s bizarre to watch an individual chastise the nurses and doctors about Covid being fake as they sit on the floor gasping for air while a cytokine storm roars in their lungs. The time between each word is drawn out while they are trying to draw in as many breaths as they can. “Would you like the oxygen back on, sir?” a nurse will inquire after another failed escape. They accept our help back to their room. Regain their breath with help from the oxygen. And then the escape plotting starts all over again. Another patient who was on a ventilator kept telling us Covid wasn’t real after they regained consciousness.
As frustrating as it is, this is not as uncommon as you would hope. A few people are too far down the false information rabbit hole that there isn’t any point trying to convince them otherwise. Heads and brick walls and all that. There’s a name for this condition they share: cognitive dissonance. This is how conflicting information is perceived. A lot of people who are on the cusp of being antivaxxers or Covid deniers are simply undecided because they don’t know what to believe.
Two people in the apartment building I live in have voiced that to me. They said there was too much conflicting information available and they didn’t know which way to swing. I explained that the virus is real, their concerns are real and that vaccinations are amazing. They have both received their first doses now.
Perhaps for us as citizens the best way to help each other is to talk to whoever we can about the current state of affairs. A desire to save the world in one hit is grandiose romanticism or politics. The only way we’re going to achieve it is to save one person at a time.
*The writer works as an ICU nurse in Sydney
*This article first appeared on the theguardian.com website