Eighteen months ago in the early days of the pandemic for my state, nursing homes had become overwhelmed with the first surges of the infection. There were no nurses to spare, and nurse executives had sent entire shifts of the nursing staff home infected. In a desperate measure, one nursing home filed for federal relief in the form of deployment of nurses and technicians from their local Veterans Affairs (VA). I had worked at that VA Medical Center (VAMC) for five years and had lived around the corner from that skilled nursing facility just over four. I knew the pale four-story building from the exterior only, as my boyfriend-turned-fiancé-turned husband and I had gone for strolls in the gorgeous block-wide park next door. Seasons passed, the grass became lusher, and trees grew more extensive, but I never really considered the residents of the pale granite building...
Until the pandemic came to New Hampshire.
At the formal request for assistance, I asked to be deployed to this local facility primarily out of convenience—it was a two-block walk from my house. I wanted to contribute to the fight, having been one of the first in the city to have COVID-19, but I also did not want to be too inconvenienced. I was selfless for selfish reasons.
My first 12-hour night shift started a few hours after a nine-hour workday, and I worked one hundred and fifty hours in the next two weeks while trying to keep up with my “day job” as the chief of quality. Because my employer had not fitted me for N95 masks, I was performing the care of the ‘healthy’ (but exposed) patients—in charge of thirty-one patients for each shift, with two CNAs pitching in. I would have to run to the COVID wing in an emergency without proper personal protective equipment (PPE). It was a few days before I discovered that in the building of a hundred residents, I was the only Registered Nurse (RN) and one of four nurses. After a fifteen-minute orientation, three day nurses handed over two bundles of keys to me with their well-wishes. I was alone with my patients—doing bedside nursing and 24-hour reports for the first time in ten years. I was continuously worried.
Any nurse who has worked in a skilled nursing facility (SNF) can imagine the types of patients for which I cared. There was the elderly gentleman that liked to ‘visit’ the gals in their eighties, with or without his trousers; the fretful woman who survived a stroke but no longer with a command of speech; the seventeen medication events per shift. In those two weeks, one patient died, and one fell and broke their hip (neither on my shift!). With overwhelming numbers of patients, my first night shifts in a decade, and first med passes in as long, it seemed like pure grace that the outcomes were even that good.
Overnight, that little park next door became momentously more significant to me. I heard the residents talk about not being allowed out with their families in that park. On my last med pass of each shift, I would look out the high north-facing windows on tiptoe and scan the walks for my thoughtful husband, come to walk me home in the fresh Spring air. I watched flowers bud, blossom, and fade. I learned the inner workings of that granite structure and felt my heart change. After two decades of taking care of strangers—either during my time working in another state, in the military or then at New Hampshire’s only VAMC—I was taking care of people who were neighbors. They loved Wagner Park as much as I did.
That knowledge changed everything. While the science of nursing is the foundation of the modern profession, neighborliness made the difference in my feelings towards this pandemic. Wearing several layers of PPE at work and masks in the community no longer felt like sacrifices when I thought of each of those faces. Like most selfless acts, my heart and behavior benefitted the most.
In some ways, the way forward is a call back to our early days—to see public health as a civic duty. I do not bear the restrictions, distancing, masks, or short supplies because a big government says I must; I bear them because that is what my neighbors need from me.
The distillation of information and my experience came down to this: the war of the community, the war of misinformation, will only end when we recognize our duty to each other—not just as nurses-to-nurses or nurses-to-patients, but as person-to-person. That is the way through the mental, emotional, and physical fatigue as well.
My hopes for surviving this pandemic are not pinned on social media or traditional media. They are not pinned on big government. Or local government. Or even on the World Health Organization.
They are pinned on my neighbors.
Ten months ago, I sat in that park with my husband and told our family that a long-awaited baby was on its way. Three months ago, I brought my sweet boy to my favorite park for the first time.
Nearly as poignant was the sight of a resident I recognized having lunch with his family on a park bench. At last, my neighbor was safe in our park.