Everyone knows, generally, about the grueling job, rough conditions, and valiant work by doctors, nurses, and aides on the frontlines of the fight to save lives from the coronavirus pandemic. Baltimore nurse Rosem Morton provides the details in her journal of eight days at the front.
At the hospital where Morton works, staff are balancing caring for patients with a limited supply of personal protective gear, while trying to keep track of shifting protocols. Morton, also a photographer and a recipient of a National Geographic Explorer grant, has been chronicling her day-to-day experiences. From being fit for a N95 mask to worrying about her hours, she and her colleagues are up close and personal with the virus every day. Read on to find out what it’s like to be a nurse in the time of coronavirus.
Editor’s note: To obtain permission to photograph in the hospital where she works, Morton agreed not to name it.
Work Day 1: March 17, 2020, Tuesday
Days since the first confirmed case of coronavirus in Maryland: 12
Days since the first known coronavirus patient was admitted to the hospital where I work: six
As I scramble to leave for work, I realize my routine has changed. My lunch box is replaced by a plastic bag. I used to carry a glass container, a cloth napkin, metal utensils, and a water bottle. I cringe at the waste from single-use plastics, but I tell myself that minimizing items I bring home lessens the risk for everyone. I leave behind my purse and stuff my pockets with my badge, scissors, and a pen.
I arrive at work before sunrise. The main rotating door is closed. In front of it is a sign reading “COVID Response,” showing the new rules that limit entry to the hospital. Hospital employees form a silent line, spaced for social distancing, to filter in through a side door. Today is one of the last days I would call “business as usual.” While much of the administrative staff has moved to working remotely, everyone else is still here.
At lunch, coronavirus is all we talk about: Labor and delivery nurses have been moved to the emergency department, another hospital has only a four-day supply of personal protective equipment. Are we all wondering the same thing? What does this mean for us? (Follow our comprehensive COVID-19 coverage.)
Work Day 2: March 18, 2020, Wednesday
Confirmed cases of coronavirus in Maryland: 85
Today is the first day that medical workers will perform only emergent and urgent operations. After all the cancellations of other surgeries, there’s more staff than usual to help out. I serve as a scrub nurse assisting the surgeon for neurosurgery, one of my favorite specialties. I realize then that a lot of the surgeries I help in are emergent and urgent. Maybe I won’t feel the disruptions of COVID-19 that much after all.
Many of us finish early and wonder what’s next. As a longstanding per diem employee, I know it will only be a matter of time before they cut my hours, unless I prove myself useful.
My husband, an RN, comes home from taking care of the first high-suspicion coronavirus patient in his unit. He was a charge nurse and didn’t need to take care of patients today. But he volunteered, because he recognized that many of his coworkers were nervous. This is a beautiful example of what healthcare providers all over the world are doing. (This is what physicians do and don’t know about treating coronavirus.)
Day off: March 19, 2020, Thursday
I get a text asking if I’m willing to be floated to other roles in the hospital. I say yes.
Work Day 3: March 20, 2020, Friday
Confirmed cases of coronavirus in Maryland: 149
I walk up to the front desk of the operating room to check my assignments for the day. Several powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs) hang on an IV pole as though on display. Rows of batteries blink as they charge on a metal table. There is a box of PAPRs off to the side. Something is brewing but I don’t have time to investigate.
I enter the operating room to be scrub nurse for a neurosurgery case. I throw myself into a steady rhythm, just as I have done for many years: Gathering supplies, checking sterility, and arranging instruments. I am in my own world, a mental reprieve. It’s short-lived.
The anesthesia staff walks in with PAPRs—hoods that go over the head and are attached to a machine that filters air. We learn that the hospital’s new recommendation for respiratory procedures, such as intubation and extubation, is for medical staff to wear PAPRs o