Home COVID-19 An ER Nurse Looks Back on Three Years of Hell

An ER Nurse Looks Back on Three Years of Hell

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by Kellen Squire

Three years ago, stay at home orders started coming down the pike, from universities, workplaces, schools, and governors. The healthcare system in New York City was already straining under the weight of would end up being thousands of deaths in just a couple weeks’ time. Lombardy, in Italy, still hadn’t come down off of their peak of cases and deaths- they just kept increasing, day after day. And to those of us in emergency services… it looked as dim as it ever could be.

I wrote about it at the time. Looking back, I can still feel the cold rage I felt; the feeling of knowing that my colleagues and I would expose ourselves and even our families to care for the sick, and the feeling that the current Administration couldn’t care less that we were buying time for them with our lives.

For instance, I know you all probably shared the horror and disgust that we were so lacking of personal protective equipment (PPE), that healthcare providers were being asked to reuse single-use masks hundreds of times and given rain ponchos to use as isolation gowns… but for us as “essential” workers, it obviously hit a lot different.

It took us months for things to normalize for our PPE supplies; in fact, we had to wait for another President to fully restore the national security supply chain to get the protection we needed. Of course, by then, we’d moved on from the scarcity of the critical supplies we needed to protect ourselves, and into the middle of a billion-dollar campaign to demonize my colleagues and I in healthcare.

I gave an interview with a University of Virginia Alumni magazine in April 2020, that- unbeknownst to me at the time- became one of the core reasons I decided to run for the Virginia House of Delegates for a second go-round. “We have to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again,” I said at the time, “We have to learn every single lesson we can and take them forward…”

If we don’t,” I said, somberly and unfortunately prophetically, “all it will have been is heartbreak.”

The ER is the last step of the safety net. People come to us when they have no other options, and almost always, if we don’t figure out how to help them? Nobody else will. It gives my colleagues and I a unique view of all the things that are broken in society. From the rollback of reproductive and civil rights to the gun violence epidemic; whether we’re talking about healthcare reform, domestic violence, the opioid crisis, the greying of society, the mental health crisis, climate change, all along with the everyday strain of helping the people in our community when they are at their most desperate- we bear witness to all of it.

Look, I had to come to grips a long time ago that, in the ER, we are ultimately fighting a losing battle. Despite all of our medical advances, the death rate is still 100%- you won’t get out of life alive, as the old saying goes. So our job is to give people as much time, and as much good time, as we can with their family and friends. To give them as many sunrises and sunsets as we are able to.

Knowing that is how I cope with picking bedbugs off of and cleaning and packing the bedsores of an elderly woman, preparing evidence for her APS case; cope with the patient who arrives in diabetic ketoacidosis because they couldn’t afford their insulin, knowing their ICU stay is going to cost us all way more- literally and figuratively- than their insulin ever would have; cope with the kid with chronic medical conditions whose medicine now costs $7k/month because it wasn’t “cost effective” for the pharmaceutical company to manufacture it anymore.

The endless parade of human suffering, the vicarious trauma, the long hours and “non-essential” pay. We get through it because we know we’re giving people more time.

But the pandemic was different- I had to watch dozens of our neighbors, our community members, and millions more beyond them die needless deaths at the hands of people who couldn’t have cared less about the harm they were doing. People who pushed other folks’ out of the way to get vaccinated first- Fox News’ Rupert Murdoch got a COVID-19 vaccination before my colleagues and I in the ER did, after all- and then swung around to keeping as many other people from getting vaccinated as possible, keeping the pandemic going as long as possible, giving the virus time to mutate and find loopholes to enable it to keep infecting and killing even more people.

They count on us to hold the line for every problem they refuse to address- and then they actively work to not only make our jobs harder but rob the people we serve every single day of time. Precious time. A finite and ever diminishing resource, that even in the best of circumstances isn’t promised to ANY of us.

I’ve always been upfront about not being an “Only I can solve it, only I can win” kind-of candidate. A statewide public option, community paramedicine, a cost-of-living allowance for teachers, funding a dramatic increase in the number of counselors and therapists, enshrining the right to privacy in the Virginia constitution; all policies I intend to push for. But other folks can do that, too.

But I’m going to make sure they hear what they’re doing.

They’re going to hear about the women who’ve had to use Virginia as a refuge to access lifesaving abortion care; about the nearly fatal health consequences I’ve seen personally that come from crisis pregnancy centers.

They’re going to hear about the patient I had to watch die of the COVID, having been suckered into the right-wing mediasphere, whose last words before the light went out in their eyes were a lament that they were never going to see their kids again.

They’re going to hear about gun violence. About the real cost; about what “surviving” gun violence means to the patients who do; to the families and friends and community at large.

They’re going to hear about why being the most dangerous country in the world for pregnant women isn’t just some vague hypothetical that happens somewhere else, and exactly what that means to those who have to suffer the consequences of that.

That’s why I’m going to Richmond. I can’t promise to make the folks there act – nobody can promise that. But what I can do is make them hear, in a way nobody else can, the real consequences their actions have on the people of the Commonwealth.

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