Business Insider Edition

'We're not sacrificial lambs' - a nurse describes reusing her N95 mask

Sarah Al-Arshani , Business Insider US
 Apr 03, 2020, 10:34 AM
Worker sprays disinfectant in ambulance at Brooklyn Hospital Center during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New York

  • A travel nurse working with Covid-19 patients described to Insider what it's like on the front lines of the outbreak.
  • She's had to reuse protective equipment, prepare her family in the case that she dies, and comfort patients who are fighting the novel coronavirus alone.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Healthcare workers across the United States are dealing with an influx of patients due to the novel coronavirus. Hospitals are facing shortages of critical supplies like ventilators and personal protective equipment for workers, yet one nurse volunteered to work on the front lines of the outbreak.

Paige, who asked that her full name be concealed, told Insider she's been working with Covid-19 patients in a Southern California hospital.

Paige, who is a travel ER nurse, left her family in another state. Her father turns 86 soon, but given her proximity to patients with Covid-19, she will be unable to see him, even without shelter in place orders.

"I can't be the reason my dad dies," she said, explaining that she had a tough conversation with him so he knows how to protect himself.

Paige also said she's talked to other nurses and healthcare workers in hard-hit places like Seattle who were making difficult decisions on who they could save and what to do if they're overburdened.

At a time where no cure or vaccine has been approved for the new coronavirus, healthcare workers are especially vulnerable to contracting it. Hospital workers have already contracted the virus and some have died, including a New York City nurse.

According to Paige, some nurses were being asked to fill out their advance directives or do end of life planning in case they contract the new coronavirus and die. While Paige said she hasn't had that conversation with her dad, she discussed the subject with her sisters.

"If I were to get really sick, my sisters know I don't want to take a ventilator from someone else who may need it," she said.

Despite the personal risks Paige said she feels obligated to help. She wants to comfort patients who were going through this alone.

"I chose this career, and I chose my specialty for a reason," she said. " I wanted to help people in their most vulnerable moments.

And Paige isn't the only nurse volunteering to be on the front lines of the outbreak.

Dan Weberg, Head of Clinical Innovation at Trusted Health, a digital company that matches travel nurses with hospitals says his platform has seen an increase in nurses applying to work with Covid-19 patients. He said close to 20 000 nurses have signed up since March 1.

But personal protective equipment is still hard to come by for many of these Frontline workers across the nation.

Paige said her hospital is doing its best to provide workers with supplies amid the national shortage. They gave her a gift bag to store the personal protective equipment that she would be required to reuse. Paige said she's had to reuse a single N95 mask for at least five shifts. She's worried that the mask, which is meant to only be used for a single patient encounter, could potentially infect her every time she puts it on and that she could also then spread the virus between patients.

"It's not a gift. It feels like a joke. It feels like a cruel joke," she said of having to carry around the gift bag.

She's frustrated and let down to hear politicians suggest that the demand for more gear is unwarranted.

"We don't have it," she said of the PPE. "We're not sacrificial lambs. I didn't become a nurse to be a martyr, and that's how I feel."

But she's even more concerned about hospitals who are firing or threatening healthcare workers who talk to journalists or share online about the shortages. Decisions like that mean nurses still working have to pick up the slack.

While her hospital isn't overcapacity yet, they've been sending patients whose symptoms like fever, cough, and pneumonia, who would normally have been admitted, home with oral antibiotics to leave room for more severe cases that could come in.

Paige said she's trying to reassure patients who are dealing with Covid-19.

"It's hard to see people so sick and ask them to do it alone," she said.

She's also trying to take care of herself, and while she says organizations have reached out to nurses with free counseling, she's not at the point where she needs it.

"We try to leave work at work, but it's a lot harder now," she said. "We harden ourselves a little bit. We have a dark sense of humor, and we laugh when others would cry."

The US has over 245 000 Covid-19 cases and at least 5 900 deaths.

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