Coronavirus from the perspective of a cancer clinic nurse

These unprecedented times are scary, but there is a lot we can be thankful for. There is also a learning opportunity for all of us; the opportunity to see this situation from someone else’s perspective.

Many of us show our appreciation for our doctors, nurses, and front-line workers by making noise in the evenings. We see photos on social media of hospital staff working hard, suffering bruises from masks, and savoring quiet moments. They are seeing and doing so much for others that it can take its toll, not only physically but mentally. That is why they need as much support as possible to get through this. There is help out there, for instance, they can visit this site, speak to a medical professional, as well as connect with those going through something similar, keeping those lines of communication open to help them cope with day-to-day problems.

Beyond what we can see, is what we can be told. The following article comes from the perspective of a nurse supervisor at a cancer clinic in Seattle. This perspective goes beyond the hospital and will give you a look into a nurse’s day-to-day life, working on the front lines while staying involved with her own family.

A nurse’s coronavirus routine: Recording videos she hopes her family will never need to watch


The words are familiar at first, a bedtime trope so dependable that it’s hard to imagine this ritual will ever change. Every evening, Elise Barrett helps her 2-year-old get ready for the night. Their apartment’s small, so he sleeps in the walk-in closet, and she climbs in with him, for a cuddle and a story before lights-out.

Now, he’s asleep, and she’s in the living room with her phone. She’s 34, a nurse supervisor at a cancer clinic in Seattle, and she’s tired. You can see it in the heavy way she blinks, in the darkness at the edges of her eyes. There are dishes to do, and she’s sweaty and feels like hot trash, but she hits the red button on her screen to record, and starts telling the same story she just told again. “Once upon a time,” she begins, “there was a little boy named Kepler.”

They’d named him after the astronomer, who had lost some eyesight to smallpox and went on to trace the glittering paths of planets across the sky. They liked how he’d defied authority to sketch out his strange, clock-like vision of the cosmos; they liked how, even as he pored over formulas and diagrams, he’d written fiction, too.

For weeks now, she’s been eyeing the disastrous waves of coronavirus elsewhere, knowing that her city had been an early U.S. hotspot, and might soon be overwhelmed. She’d heard the Italian government had taken emergency measures to deploy thousands more health workers – reinforcement for those getting sick on the front lines. It sounded almost like medical conscription.

On nursing Facebook groups, she saw that swamped New York hospitals were desperate for anyone with any ICU experience at all. Sometimes, administrators threw in workers from other kinds of units, without much training. “How do I fix this?” one nurse wrote, frantically trying to debug life-sustaining equipment.

Barrett had the sort of experience many didn’t. Before she’d switched over to oncology, in 2018, she’d spent nearly 10 years in the ICU. She remembered being on her feet for hours at end, either attending to a patient or helping out other medical practitioners. The only physical comfort she’d feel would be because of the compression socks for medical professionals that everyone was supposed to wear. At least with those, she wouldn’t come back home with swollen ankles. She suspected that her time for running around for hours was close again. Ventilators, she knew, don’t run themselves; they need continual checking and fixing and alarm setting, a routine she’d gone through again and again. She knew you could put a patient face down to give stiff, swollen lungs more chance to expand, unencumbered by the weight of the heart. She knew you could gently roll the person’s head back and forth, to keep pressure sores from blistering on the skin.

She hoped it wouldn’t happen, but she suspected this crisis would require her know-how soon. Ministering to patients painfully caught between life and death is a strong tonic against denial, and she and her work friends are nothing if not matter-of-fact. They figured she’d be pulled back in. Sure enough, within a few weeks, she heard her workplace was forming a “float pool,” to shift nurses from other units into the ICU. The call would be voluntary at first, she imagined, and then become a request to which you couldn’t really say no. Even if she had a choice, and staying home meant leaving patients to die, she would have to go.

A few Mondays ago, she was chatting with a nurse friend about what it might be like to go back in, now, amid this mess. “She and I have both done the thing where you sleep in your car between shifts, because you don’t have enough time to go home,” Barrett said. “She was like, ‘You’ve got a little kid … aren’t you worried he’s going to forget what you look like?'”

Gee, thanks, Barrett thought. What a thing to say.

Then she thought her friend was probably right.

She was already telling Kepler one story every evening, if he wasn’t too tired. Now, she tells each story twice: once in the warmth of his converted closet bedroom, a kind of fort to keep the news at bay, and then again when she’s emerged into the real world of obligations and worries and constant phone pings.

The plot usually revolves around Kepler as he explores the forest. He bargains with an orange and purple snake so it doesn’t devour his squirrel friends; he bops it on the nose so it doesn’t devour him. Sometimes Barrett becomes the snake, making slithery-whispery sounds with her tongue; sometimes she embodies Kepler, furrowing her brow, forging ahead no matter the risks.

Those videos, Barrett sends to her husband, in case she needs to miss bedtimes. But when he’s out, working as an aircraft mechanic on the night shift, she’s also started making other, less whimsical clips. These she entrusts to a friend, so as not to give her husband nightmares.

Some are about her wishes for herself, should she get infected and end up on a vent. She’s seen how hard it is for families – even those left with clear instructions – to make decisions when an ICU team is asking, should they let go, or should they try CPR again? The question can hit you with little warning. It can leave you sick with guilt, either way. She doesn’t want that for her husband. She wants him to hear her, in her own familiar voice, laying out exactly what to do, saying she doesn’t want things drawn out.

Other videos are for Kepler, when he’s 4 or 5, and starting to ask questions. There she is, in the same old red-rimmed glasses, explaining why she had to leave, that it wasn’t anything he did.

She hopes these videos will never be watched, that she’s making them for no reason, a library for no one but herself. She hopes she’ll be there, wearing old scrubs as pajamas, acting out a bedtime story before turning to the dishes left dirty in the sink. But she can’t help thinking about the emergency doctor out in the suburbs, just doing his everyday job when he fell sick. She wonders what he was able to say before a breathing tube blocked his speech. Then, she pushes the question away. She holds her phone steady, and smiles at the screen.

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COVID-19 and Cancer

Many people are affected by COVID-19 in one way or another. Disposable masks and gowns from companies like SciQuip is widely used by the medical professionals and patients. The cancer community is especially impacted as many in our community are at a higher risk, hospital systems are limiting appointments and more.

If you are a cancer patient or a cancer caregiver, we want to offer our support as much as we can at this time. These six tips are quick and actionable items you can use right now.