As the world works to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, the people fighting to mitigate the pandemic are also those at a higher risk of becoming infected themselves: healthcare workers.
The unflappable nurses, doctors, first responders, and caregivers on the front lines of the crisis are continually confronted with situations that put their own lives at risk—like a depleted supply of masks and other supplies. Many of them feel increasingly anxious about potentially exposing not just themselves, but also their families and others to the virus. Still, they come into work.
ELLE.com spoke to eight women in the U.S. healthcare industry about their fears for the future, and how they’re banding together to save lives.
Nancy G., Paramedic Lieutenant
“Our service has instituted some new scheduling rules, which are designed to minimize the number of different people we are exposed to at work. We are perpetually short-staffed and this new virus will no doubt stretch our resources very thin. It’s my great hope that people stay home and self quarantine, so as not to expose us unnecessarily. Our patients have been apologetic about calling 911 during the pandemic, but they really shouldn’t be. People are still going to have strokes and heart attacks and injuries and we are prepared to be there as we always are and always will be. Times like these make me very proud of what I do. My coworkers are incredibly special. We don’t make a lot of money, and the work can be outrageously difficult. We’ve developed some pandemic coping skills, and we have an emotional support cat at our station.”
Ashley Citron, Registered Nurse
“My biggest concern at work is the unknown. It’s becoming more and more clear that we truly have no idea what is coming or what the best way to handle it is. Part of my job means being ready for anything that comes through the door, and that’s usually what I love about it. But this situation has created genuine fear and concern each time the ambulance bay doors open. Working in triage in the emergency department means I would be the first person to encounter a potential COVID-19 patient, and soon there may not be enough masks available to protect me, or them, from this virus. While the general population sits at home watching TikTok videos, staring at the piles of surgical masks they stocked up on, my coworkers and I are exposing ourselves to this virus for hours at a time. We want to be able to continue to come into work and provide the care that is so desperately needed, but without the proper protection, that’s not something we’re guaranteed to be able to do.
We are scared for our patients, who may not be able to get the level of care they need due to limited resources, and we are scared for our families, who are at risk for getting the virus simply because we live with them. We are scared for ourselves, for the hours we will be required to work, for the lack of preparedness by leadership, for the lack of supplies available to protect us, and most of all, for becoming a patient.
I don’t take my job lightly and it’s during these incredibly difficult times that I’m reminded why I took this path to begin with. I will continue to come into work despite the risks and despite all the unknown, because the sick need someone to care for them, and that person is me.”
Shelby Kubicki, Resident Physician
“Exposure to COVID-19 is definitely a huge concern, both for me personally and for patient safety. If I see a COVID-19 positive patient and don’t take the proper precautions, it could be transmitted to my other patients, even if I’m not showing symptoms. Even though the majority of severe cases so far have occurred in elderly people or in those with preexisting conditions, there are still reports of young, healthy people contracting COVID-19 and ending up in intensive care. So that’s in the back of my head as well, unfortunately. At this point visitors are completely banned and only certain entrances are open to limit traffic in and out of the hospital.
I’m getting through this stressful time with help from my amazing coworkers. I feel so lucky to be working alongside supportive and brilliant people in the midst of all this. My co-residents and I are in contact constantly. We check in on each other and share the latest COVID-19 research updates. We also exchange resources that help us stay sane, like restaurants that are still open, places offering discounts for healthcare workers, and online workout classes. It’s a difficult time to be working at a hospital for so many reasons, but just like with any job, the people you spend your days with make a huge difference.”
Ali, Social Worker at a Health Clinic
“Yesterday I went into work while most people in Philadelphia, where I live, stayed home. It was bizarre. The only people on the subways were healthcare workers. There was definitely a feeling of solidarity among us. Without saying anything, it felt like we’re all in this together. At work, people were extremely anxious and worried. We did test a few individuals for the novel coronavirus at the clinic, which left everyone worried about their own health and about how bad things could get. On top of those extreme worries, we were still treating and working with patients that have every day health and social issues. I met with individuals struggling with mental heath and insurance issues, and individuals experiencing homelessness staying in shelters. Trying to focus on other issues as well as realizing that most people we serve will not be able to quarantine or be able to get the help they need through this time was difficult and extremely draining. It’s taxing on my own mental health, too.
When I left work at 5 p.m. the city was officially shutting down. It was too quiet outside. It felt scary, like things wouldn’t be the same for a very long time. I’m lucky that I can work from home now, but I’m worried about my coworkers. I feel guilty about staying home. But I’m doing my best to be helpful from my couch. Still, it’s unsettling.”
Kristin, Medical Case Manager
“I work in an HIV clinic and a large portion of our patients are houseless and have very low incomes. Many also receive assistance from a variety of other service providers. As non-essential services have all shut down, we’re the people they call. My phone is ringing off the hook with people who need food resources, lodging, and help with unemployment because they just got laid off for the first time in their life. We’re overwhelmed, but it’s work that needs to be done. If I didn’t come in, somebody might not know where to go pick up a food box or know how to find somewhere to sleep tonight. Because I work with people who are HIV-positive, my biggest concern is that one of my immunosuppressed clients could get infected. We’re trying to do as many medical, mental health, and social work appointments over the phone as we can. And as far as precautions, we’re wiping down everything multiple times a day, washing our hands a lot, and following social distancing protocols. I’m also making sure to stay at home when I’m not at work.
My team at work is used to working with a tough clientele, so I think we’re pretty incredible under pressure. It’s amazing to see how kind and grateful everyone has been to one another. We are rising to the occasion and it feels pretty incredible to be a part of that. I’m not personally scared of catching the virus, but I do worry about passing it to someone more vulnerable. I also worry about the lasting effects on low-income folks, service industry workers, and the economy. The effects of this are going to devastate many, which gives me a lot of anxiety.”
*Courtney, Cath Lab Nurse
“This above picture is of my old unit, which is next to the Cath Lab. All the COVID-19 patients and possible COVID-19 patients are in the units surrounding us. We share the same hallways and will cross paths. We’ve already had several patients that have become ‘patients under investigation’ after they came to us. As of yet, no positive COVID-19 patient has come through our unit, but it will happen. Its all very surreal.
I’m in an Airbnb right now, because my biggest concern is for my family and my community. I am a health person, so if I get it, I will be fine. However, I can’t go home to be with my family. My husband was given the news he has cancer last Thursday and his first oncology appointment is tomorrow. We know he has a tumor and it is throughout his body. Our insurance denied earlier testing, so he had to go out and get it himself. I’ve decided to remove myself from him and our youngest daughter at home. It’s expensive, but I can’t not work. And I don’t want to get him sick.
Many people at work have sick loved ones at home and that is incredibly anxiety inducing. We fight it with lots of jokes, insight, and support. I feel it is in utter privilege to work as a nurse, and I have an amazing team surrounding me.”
*Annie, Resident Nurse
“I’m concerned that people are being misinformed from political figures who don’t work in medicine. I’m concerned that people are coming to the emergency department that have already been tested COVID-19 positive and they come in for something like back pain. It’s completely unrelated to COVID-19 and that’s risking my safety. We ask people to stay home to protect others around you. We don’t have an unlimited number of tests. I feel like with the equipment being given to us, I’m almost bound to get it. I’m not really confident on why we aren’t getting the same protective equipment. I’m not sure if we found out something new about how COVID-19 is spread or if it’s because we don’t have enough of that equipment. If I’m being honest, it doesn’t make me feel like I’m not being as safe as I could be. But that could just be my own anxiety. In the end, we do have a good sense of humor about it. Every morning we have a huddle at the nurses station to get more information, and to boost each other up. There isn’t a single day that I go into work without hearing, ‘Today is going to be a good day,’ or “If you need any help, let me know.’
We are very supportive of each other. That’s why I love my job. I want to protect all of my loved ones and all of my patients. And I want the world to be given correct information so that there isn’t a global anxiety driven mess. I’m a nurse and proud of it! And right now, it’s important because it’s no different than the compassion I’ve always given!”
Kim Tucker, Registered Nurse
“I take care of pregnant women and babies, so my biggest concern at work is that we are working with an immunosuppressed population. Our hospital has been pulling some of our staff to do screenings at hospital entrances and in the emergency department of people coming to the hospital, putting them even more at risk for exposure. We are a specialized unit and not every nurse knows how to or can take of a pregnant or laboring woman. We are the emergency department of pregnant women and I’m concerned that we’ll eventually will all get the virus and not be able to work. Then who will take care of our patients?
But the show must go on. Our patients depend on us and if I’ve learned anything now, it’s that I can’t be selfish in this time. Our patients depend on us to still give the best care and act as if nothing is really different, even though it is. Our patients need us now more then ever in the hospital because their support is limited. We have a ‘We’re all in this together’ mentality and we’ve accepted that we will be exposed at some point. We’re concerned about exposing our families, children, and patients. But I work with the best women and we are each others biggest support systems. “
*Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of the healthcare workers.