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We're Still Here

July 22, 2020
Ashton Walsh – having already changed once before getting into her car – blows air kisses to her 1-year-old daughter before putting her clothes in the wash on the hottest setting and taking a shower. This has become the new routine for one of GBMC's Intensive Care Unit (ICU) nurse leaders coming home from a shift. The mechanical nature of the new routine was simple enough to implement, but the emotional load Ashton and her fellow nurses carry hasn’t been as easy to overcome.

"It's been really hard," Ashton said. "Most of us can’t see our families. We have family members who don't want to see us because we are exposed every day. It's been emotional."

Not only are nurses in the ICU dealing with their own families’ emotions, they are also absorbing the anxiety, stress and grief of patients and their families. They are fulfilling their clinical nursing duties in addition to acting as surrogate family members for their patients, which is especially difficult when the patient is at the end of his or her life.

"It's really hard to watch people not get to be with their loved ones as they pass away," said Ashton’s coworker Kathryn Shea, RN. "We have been able to coordinate video calls, but it's still not the same. It's very heartbreaking to know that we don't want to be restricting visitors, and it's even more heartbreaking to know that the family members can't be there, even when they want to be."

Despite the disconnection families are feeling from their dying loved ones, they could not be more grateful that someone caring can be there with them in their last moments.

“My dad, Harry, was recently in the ICU fighting COVID-19," Brian Knapp said. "I want to express our family’s gratitude for the great work of the healthcare professionals who took care of him. The staff was wonderful over the last week, giving the best care while he fought for his life. From Drs. [Donald] Slack and [Su] Yue-Zhou Yu, to nurse Harrison [Jackson], and especially Kathryn Shea, who made sure she was with Dad when he passed, you don’t know what that meant to me and our family. I thought it was important people know of the great job and compassion extended by the team in the ICU. It will stay with our family for a lifetime."

In obvious ways, the ICU team’s work has changed drastically, and nurses on the unit think those changes are here to stay. Each clinician approaches patient care in a more thoughtful, meticulous and intentional way. The pandemic has encouraged them to think through their processes even more strategically to ensure the safety of the patient they are treating, other patients on the unit and themselves.

"When you have a crashing patient, obviously your first, your very first, instinct is to run into the room and help them in any way that you can," Ashton said. "The biggest change is we have to stop and put PPE on before we go in the room. Otherwise, you risk getting yourself and everyone else sick. We have to think critically about the way we do things and the way we respond to things."

As much as the logistical ways in which they approach their jobs has forever changed, so has the emotional toll this work has had on them. Dealing with the unique experience of working in an ICU during a global pandemic has bonded the team, who rely a lot on each other for emotional support.

"Having a supportive team is so important. Being able to talk to your coworkers about things that are going on really helps," Shelli Whittington, RN, said.

"The group here is incredible," Ashton said. "We get each other through and talk and hold each other up a lot. I honestly don't know what I would do without my coworkers because they are really the only ones who truly understand."

Maryland's numbers might be decreasing, and businesses might be reopening, but the virus has not gone away. Nurses in the ICU continue to see patients every day, at the worst moments of their lives. The frenetic pace of adjusting to a new way of working has faded, and as nurses in the ICU settle into their new normal, the reality of how long this could last is daunting.

"We're still here. We haven't stopped." Ashton said. "It's been since March 8 that we’ve been here full tilt, every day, 24/7, taking care of these patients. It hasn't gone away. It's not going away. It's going to be here and so are we."

To learn how you can support our healthcare heroes, please visit www.gbmc.org/donations or donate to the GBMC HealthCare Workers Fund which helps those sacrificing so much to protect our community.
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