A nurse’s notes from the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic

I’ve always been interested in critical care nursing. I find the complexity of caring for patients on the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) invigorating. So many variables need to be considered before every decision — if you choose X, then it could cause Y, and then Z might be an issue, too.

But I also love being able to relieve some of our patients’ suffering and bring emotional comfort to them and their families. That’s why the coronavirus (COVID-19) has presented such a challenge to nurses. The pandemic brings a whole new level of complexity to our job. Here are some of my observations from the field, as an ICU nurse serving on MD Anderson’s COVID-19 unit.

Hardest ‘side effect’ of COVID-19 pandemic: physical distancing

Without question, the most difficult aspect of caring for patients with COVID-19 is that we can’t just walk in and chit-chat the way we used to. Nurses’ interactions are very limited now because we try not to go into our patients’ rooms too often.

I’m not really worried about catching the coronavirus myself — at least not from my patients or colleagues. Everything at MD Anderson is set up in such a structured way. We have all the protective gear we need on the COVID-19 unit, spotters to help us take off our soiled gowns and open doors, and cleaning staff who are constantly wiping things down. Everyone is being really cautious and practicing social distancing. So, I feel like I’m in the safest place I can possibly be.

But our patients rely on us for human interaction, too. And even that is super-limited now. We can interact with them virtually, of course, because MD Anderson provides iPads in all of their rooms. But it’s still hard because we know this is a scary time. And nurses want to be at their bedsides, holding their hands.

It helps that a couple of our chaplains come by during the week, to take virtual calls from patients. I know that brings them some comfort. Mostly, we just try to let our patients know that we’re here for them emotionally, even if we can’t physically be with them as much as we’d like.

Biggest surprise: Symptom variation between patients

One thing that’s surprised me is how much variation there can be between patients who’ve tested positive for COVID-19.

Some of our patients are on ventilators. Many are sedated. But some are just walking around in their rooms or eating dinner like it’s no big deal. They say, “I tested positive? Really? That’s so weird! I feel fine.” And they look fine, too.

It’s been really interesting to see how wide the range of symptoms is, and to try to figure out why some people are so severely affected, while others aren’t.

Unexpected silver lining: community support during COVID-19 pandemic

One positive thing I’ve seen come out of the COVID-19 pandemic — if there can be a positive thing — is seeing how much public support health care workers are receiving. It’s sad that it’s taken a global pandemic for entire communities to come together, but the teamwork I witness every day as a result is phenomenal. It’s really been wonderful.

Girl Scout troops have given us cookies, restaurants have donated food, and one infectious disease specialist even brought us some of his own homemade brownies. Gestures like these show not just how big people’s hearts are, but how appreciated we are, as essential workers. And that means a lot to us.

Free time outside the ICU leads to new opportunities

The most unexpected benefit of the pandemic has been free time in my off-duty hours. As Americans, we tend to be go-go-go, always hustling. I’m no different. There are many things I’d been wanting to do, but until recently, I just didn’t have the time. Now, I do. So, I’ve been taking advantage of it.

This pandemic made me realize that I had no real hobbies to speak of, other than watching TV and dining out — which is really boring. So, my husband and I started gardening and going on bike rides. My husband built a raised bed in our yard, and now we have a jalapeño plant, a couple of bell pepper plants, carrots and squash.

Brooke Spacek in her new garden

I’m really bored with TV, too, so I’m using this time to start things I only considered before. I find myself looking around and thinking, “What other opportunities can I take advantage of?” It’s been really refreshing. I feel more energized now than I did before the pandemic started, so I don’t see it exclusively as a negative anymore.

Learn how MD Anderson is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.