A Day in the Life of a Nurse: Caring for COVID-19 Patients in an Underserved Community

April 28, 2020

Sandra Langston, a doctoral student in nursing at The Graduate Center, described a typical day caring for coronavirus patients — who are often alone.

Sandra Langston (Photo courtesy of Langston)
Sandra Langston (Photo courtesy of Langston)

Sandra Langston, a doctoral student in nursing at The Graduate Center, described a typical day caring for coronavirus patients — who are often alone, unable to be visited by family members — in a New York City hospital:
I am an eight-year member of the NYC Medical Emergency Reserve Corp (MERC). In this capacity, I respond to public health emergencies and provide professional nursing care to those affected. In previous years, I have been a member of a team of nurses who responded to Hurricane Sandy and worked on Ebola screening and the Crown Heights Measle Screening. Now I’m responding to COVID-19.
I am volunteering at a hospital in an underserved community, providing care to patients who have tested positive for coronavirus or have been admitted with a pneumonia diagnosis pending coronavirus test results. Because the virus attacks the respiratory system, I start the shift by donning personal protection equipment (PPE), including the face shield, head covering, and shoe booties. Entering the unit, I assess the respiratory status of the patients in my district. Some patients are vented, while others are receiving supplemental oxygen. I consistently monitor their respiratory status and other co-morbid conditions, because their status can change quickly. I am drawn to the bedside of what appears to be a sleeping patient; I am looking for the rise and fall of the chest and the pulse oximetry reading. Having worked on these units, you know that before the shift is completed, code blue will be announced several times. The thought of knowing that the code will come shakes you.
It is very odd not to have family members and friends at the bedside of patients on the unit. Some patients may have their cell phones and can speak to or Facetime with family. It is sad to see a sedated, vented patient and a transitioning patient alone without their family or a friend. I try to make these patients comfortable by giving them a bed bath, repositioning them, and/or changing their bed linen. But my best efforts cannot replace having loved ones nearby to encourage them or to say goodbye. The number of patients experiencing this aloneness is unprecedented.  
Because there is a shortage of nurses in the hospital, there is no one to cover patients so you can take a lunch break. The reality that you are there for the duration and you don’t really care about missing lunch, or being on your feet for 13 or more hours. I came to care for those who cannot care for themselves and to support my fellow nurses who are both mentally and physically exhausted.
My shift is over. I head to my car, and instead of rushing home, I sit there. Several thoughts are running through my head. Did I clean up properly, so that I will not bring the virus home to my family? How many of my patients will make it through the night or the week? And then I mentally prepare myself to read the several emails and text messages I’ve received that day. Today’s messages will be like yesterday’s: announcing the death of a relative, a friend, or a church member. I sit for a while in my car and take it all in.