On a crisp morning in March 2020, I returned to work with my breast pump in tow, stethoscope, and a mixed bag of emotions knowing I would be leaving my 10-week-old baby and entering a medical world nervous over a novel coronavirus that had just broken out in New York City.
One hour after arriving at work, the head of infection prevention nursing gathered everyone in our unit and said, “Be aware that COVID-19 is officially in North Carolina and in our hospital. We will do everything we can to protect you and your families. We are currently evaluating the use of PPE and will send over guidance. As of now, all staff are to report in-house.”
I immediately felt conflicting emotions. I knew it was our turn to help combat a virus that was ravaging Seattle and New York City and that, more than ever, my skills as a nurse would be needed. I simultaneously felt worried for my newborn baby girl. My husband Chris and I had struggled through four rounds of IVF to conceive her and now we were faced with a virus that we knew could harm our family. I also worried that Chris, an emergency room physician, or I would bring the virus home to her. And I worried about whether something would happen to us that would prevent us from caring for our daughter and our patients.
I chased the infection prevention nurse down the hall, feeling panicked. How do we know we won’t bring this home? Does my husband need to be quarantined? Should he move out? Do I need to stop breastfeeding? Are there any chances of working remotely? The last question made me feel guilty because I knew all hands needed to be on deck, but considering that my husband and I work in the healthcare industry, it seemed like a recipe for a logistical nightmare.
“Boy, were we naive to believe this would end quickly.”
Like many other healthcare workers, we had an extensive “decontamination” routine once we arrived at home. We shed our scrubs in the garage, sealed them into a plastic bag, and went upstairs to shower before touching our baby. As she got older, she would screech when we did not immediately greet or kiss her upon entering. These are all little things, but in the end, they wear on you as a parent and as a healthcare worker.
We enlisted the help of an amazing nanny, who bravely cared for our daughter while we worked long hours during uncertain times. We had neighbors and friends who embraced us wholeheartedly while others would move across the street and out of our path, to avoid potential contamination. One moment you felt like a hero while the other a leper. We look back and are grateful for the friends that made us feel like family.
Chris was enlisted to serve on the PPE program for his emergency department and, many nights, while eating a late dinner and watching images on television of physicians, nurses, and hospital workers struggling to stay afloat, he crafted policies to keep his staff safe. We got used to 16-hour days brainstorming with fellow coworkers about what we could learn from New York City, which at the time was the epicenter of infection, while COVID-19 rapidly spread and evolved in Charlotte. We knew if the leg work was done early, we could possibly protect our new baby, ourselves, and our community.
Chris would come home with stories of sick patients, some of whom had to be intubated or who needed ICU care, ECMO, and other life saving measures. While in my role as a nurse I was seeing cardiomyopathy, blood clots, and strokes related to COVID-19. This was not just a regular flu-like illness, but for many, was costing them their lives or causing terrible long-term effects.
“We are eager and hopeful for the FDA to authorize and approve the COVID-19 vaccine in the below-five age group in 2022.”
What the news described, we saw with our own eyes. Nurses in the break room said, “OK, give this two weeks and hopefully we will start to see a decline of the virus.” Boy, were we naive to believe this would end quickly.
Fortunately, almost two years of being cautious in our personal lives and using PPE spared us from ever contracting COVID-19. Our hospital system did a great job in protecting us while we did our own part at home. Promises for the vaccine came and we were the first in line.
Our baby made it to her first birthday and we got vaccinated. In between this time, there were many scary moments where we feared her testing positive for COVID-19. Many scary moments where I feared losing Chris. But we also had joyous moments, in which we grew closer to friends and family that stood by us. We enjoyed spending time outside in creative ways with our little one, and we took long car drives out of state. We tried to make the most of the lockdown, knowing one day we would enjoy indoor gym playtime and birthday parties with our baby.
Fast-forward to 2021. We experienced a small glimmer of normalcy at work when we felt protected by our vaccines and PPE and we finally saw cases drop and numbers settle. We traveled to see family and spent time indoors with vaccinated loved ones. We enrolled our baby in an art activity and gym classes — all of which lasted three weeks before the Delta variant started creeping in and we hit pause again.
While I do not experience the paralyzing fear I once felt at the beginning of the pandemic, I am concerned for my daughter who is currently ineligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, especially with the Delta variant more transmissible, virulent, and still circulating. In addition, the Omicron variant is proving to be even more transmissible, yet the complete data on how virulent it is, how it is interacting with vaccines as well as the long-term effects are still being analyzed. Once we know more, I do feel confident that scientists will point us in the right direction. As a mom, it seems as if we are growing accustomed to re-analyzing what is safe based on what the data is showing, well at least this mom is. Right now, most every mom I know worries about how the virus will affect their health and about the logistical nightmares caused by COVID-19.
And I am still worried about our profession, which has seen a lot of shortages and declining morale. I am equally, if not more worried about vaccine hesitancy and health misinformation that continues to cripple our hospitals and economy. I worry that the virus will continue to mutate and perpetuate, with some global nations having little-to-no access to vaccines, which causes rampant mortality in all communities. Healthcare workers feel frustrated at the continued waves and surges, all of which could be prevented. Some feel that the blasé attitude in the general community would change if they saw what we saw; namely people crying over a 24-year-old family member’s death from COVID-19. We remember to meet patients where they are at. We work hard to continue to save the lives we can and provide thoughtful answers and data to family, friends, patients, and strangers in the grocery store line regarding vaccines.
Chris and I, along with many friends in the healthcare community, now watch the data and percent positive rates to make decisions for our family. Where we send our daughter to preschool involves questions such as, “How strict are the school’s COVID-19 protocols?”
They say that the first year for a new mom is exhausting and nerve-wracking, but the pandemic adds an extra layer. However looking back over the last two years, not all is lost in the situation. We get to spend glorious days outside enjoying friends, family, and our little one. We are grateful for science and our health. We are eager and hopeful for the FDA to authorize and approve the COVID-19 vaccine in the below-five age group in 2022. Until then, we have learned lessons of resiliency, perseverance, gratitude and most of all we trust in our field, our craft: science.
María Pierangeli is a pseudonym requested by the writer to protect her privacy.
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