The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has touched families across the Oklahoma City metro, and the world, in different ways. The following is a perspective from a frontline nurse practitioner about her emotional struggle caring for her patients and her family.
When I became a mother I thought about all the challenges ahead, all the joys, all the big moments. I knew there would be difficult times but I never imagined raising my son in a pandemic. That his kindergarten year would be finished virtually. That I would cancel his sixth birthday party because of a nationwide lockdown. And he would only see our family on a screen as they sang him happy birthday.
When I learned about viruses in school, I realized that at some point in the near future, we would have another major virus move through our world. It was only a matter of time because history told us so. And in January of 2020, I realized this was it. It was actually happening.
I read all I could about SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 so I could prepare myself to take care of my patients and my family. How could I possibly prepare for what was coming?
When we saw the virus kill young, healthy people, it made me consider what it would be like to leave my son without a mom. For the first time in my career, there was a very real possibility that I could catch something at work that could kill me. Sure, I have had exposures to deadly pathogens before but it was nothing like this.
I made sure my legal documents were in place. I had conversations with my family about my end-of-life choices. I decided it was finally time to stop vaping on the rare occasions that I did. I needed my lungs to be in the best shape possible in case I got Covid.
So when the first surge came, we all worked together to help each other. Healthcare workers felt an outpouring of support from the community. The hospital no longer had visitors and the halls became empty and eerie. Working “on the frontlines” had so many challenges: keeping up with the evolving evidence and research for how to protect ourselves and how to take care of our patients who were facing a virus that we didn’t know how to stop, being there for our patients in a way we never had before – in place of their family, and watching more death than we had ever seen before.
On the occasion that we got to see a patient recover from severe illness and walk out of the hospital, it was a victory for so many people involved in their care.
At home, there were new challenges as well. How do I keep my family safe?
Religiously wear PPE at work. Come home and immediately shower to keep from contaminating the house. As a single mom, I had to find childcare for my son. I did not want to expose my parents because they are in a high-risk category. I did not want to expose anyone. But I had no choice and had to ask. I felt the fear of what if I make my family sick? I could never forgive myself.
As the summer wore on, it became clear that friends and family did not want to be around me because they didn’t want to risk getting sick. I was to be avoided. It was such an isolating feeling. When my son would run up to me for a hug after work and suddenly remember he couldn’t touch me until I had showered, he would scream and run away from me. While I understood his reaction, it still felt like a punch in the gut.
I was not expecting the level of relief and hope I felt when I was able to get a vaccine in December of 2020. This is what we had all been waiting for and it was finally here. A glimmer of hope that this would all stop and we could go back to normal. Leading up to the vaccine rollout, many of the doctors I spoke to were hesitant and wanted to see the data. I felt the same way.
As soon as we saw the studies, we all rolled up our sleeves. According to the American Medical Association, now over 96% of physicians in this country are vaccinated. This remains the single best thing we can do to avoid being admitted to the hospital with Covid.
But now I have come to the realization that Covid is not going anywhere. We missed our shot. Healthcare workers no longer have the support of the entire community. We are accused of lying, conspiring, and being greedy; of faking data, exaggerating, and “fear mongering.”
For nearly 20 years, Gallup polls rated nursing as the most trusted profession in the country. Nurses have been on the frontlines since the beginning of the pandemic. It is a new level of heartbreak to be accused of lying to my patients and the community while I continue to see the devastation of Covid on a daily basis.
It’s no wonder what is causing high levels of burnout among healthcare professionals.
Eventually, my son won’t remember life before Covid, before he wore a mask to school, before social distancing, before the daily death tolls, before we watched our country turn on itself. He will only know life after Covid and that is something I never prepared for as a mother.
Ashley Wakelee, APRN-CNP is an adult-gerontology nurse practitioner and works as a hospitalist at SSM St. Anthony Hospital and McCurtain Memorial Hospital. She has been in healthcare for 19 years and held positions as an ICU Nurse and in a genetics and immunology lab as a histocompatibility technologist.