The following is a Flintside opinion piece by contributor Jenifer Veloso. Have an idea for an essay or opinion piece you'd like to write for Flintside about life in Flint? Email [email protected].
I was working in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at University of Michigan the day that Detroit hospital transfers started arriving to the unit. It was complete chaos. I have worked in extremely stressful situations as a nurse in the past, but I had never witnessed the kind of fear I saw in the eyes of other nurses that day.
Alarms were going off in every direction. Staff were running back and forth between rooms to adjust intravenous drips, ventilators, and comfort patients who were terrified. We were terrified. No one had ever lived through something like this before. None of us had ever witnessed a virus take the lives and health of individuals so quickly and so aggressively.
As the transfers continued arriving that night, we kept having to intubate patients. We could barely keep up with the supplies and the medications needed to manage our patients’ care. Overwhelmingly, the population of patients we were taking care of were from majority Black communities. I just couldn't believe how much this virus was decimating the African American population. I just couldn't believe the reason I was told, simply that, “the Black community suffers from higher rates of diabetes and hypertension.”
It was a war zone.
The sign I made for my patient to remind him to take deep breaths.One night, I knew I would have to tell my patient I had been caring for that he was no longer doing well enough on his own with high flow nasal cannula. He continuously became more fatigued and hypoxic. He was on day eight of his admission and I couldn’t get him to turn around. He had asked me to make a promise. When his oxygenation would decrease he asked that I would knock on the window to remind him to take deep breaths. I made a sign and held it up to his room window. It said, “deep and slow breaths.” When he would start to nod off, I would knock on his room window and hold the sign up. He would look at me with a tired smile, give me a thumbs up, and inhale deeply. It was only a short-term fix to what I knew was inevitably coming.
I knew that my patient wouldn't be able to sustain his laboring efforts and I notified the doctor of his decreasing strength and his increasing hypoxia. I also knew if my patient was intubated he would not survive being on the ventilator because the disease process in his body was too severe and too far progressed.
I was handed an iPhone from the physician and told to help the patient call his family and, “notify them of what was happening.” Really what I had been told was to help my patient say goodbye to his family. I gowned up in my PPE (personal protective equipment) and entered the patient’s room.
I felt like an astronaut. My hair was hidden under a surgical cap, my eyes had clear protective safety glasses on, a N95 mask covered my lower face, a clear shield was worn over my head and face and I wore a yellow paper gown over my surgical scrubs. He looked so sad to see me when I walked in and I knew he could read my body language.
I sat next to him and held his hand. I explained the best way that I could what was going on with his treatment and the plan was for intubation. I told him we had to call his family. I dialed the number of his first daughter. I introduced myself on FaceTime before handing my patient the iPhone. Visitors were not allowed during this time at the hospital.
I barely recognized the person looking back at me while I waited for the call to go through. The only thing that you could see on my face were my eyes. His first daughter answered the call. She was calm. I explained to her what was happening. I handed him the iPhone and watched him say goodbye. He kept reassuring her that, “everything would be okay.”
We called his second daughter and repeated the first conversation. At this time I was doing everything to not weep. I knew I had to keep my composure for my patient.
The last call we made was going to be to his wife. We called and called. She did not answer. My patient asked if we could call one last time so he could leave her a voicemail. I kept squeezing his hand tighter. I couldn’t keep it together anymore. I listened to this sweet man say goodbye to his elderly wife on a voicemail. He talked about their life together, raising children together, and he told her he would always love her. I could never forget a word he said.
What we both didn't know was that she was hospitalized and also dying in another facility in Detroit.
When it came time for him to be intubated I just kept squeezing his hand and reminded him I would be his nurse and continue taking care of him. Holding his hand every day felt like the last bit of humanity I had left. Over the next few days I watched him deteriorate more.
Everynight I would grab his hand, tell him I was back to take care of him, and remind him we’re going to work together. He would squeeze my hand back.
My patient died from COVID-19. He and his family’s story are among the stories of hundreds of thousands who have lost their lives because of the role systemic racism plays in making African Americans even more vulnerable to the coronavirus.
Nearly a year later, I am now working as a journalist for Flintside. I have been working on stories that will inform the public as much as possible on the disease, the disparities, the vaccine, and the facts.
I no longer work as a critical care nurse but that nurse is still inside of me. I think of my patient who passed away every day. I wanted to share his story before I could share any other stories or informative updates. I wanted readers to know that I am passionate about helping raise awareness and provide information. It is my responsibility as a journalist, a nurse, and a human.