From the loss of family members, to feelings of guilt and not “being enough,” nurses open up about their past year and a half.
Living through a global pandemic is a unique and shared trauma. In honor of National Nurses Month, we connected with nurses across the Jefferson enterprise for their reflections on being a nurse during the coronavirus pandemic, just as we all begin to move on from uncertainty and fear to another “new normal,” as more and more people are vaccinated in our communities.
Below, five Jefferson nurses share how this experience has impacted their lives, changed their outlook, and how they are approaching life post-pandemic. Their comments have been edited for length and clarity.
‘I know family is most important.’
I witnessed early in my life that illnesses can come at any time, so living in the moment and being present is how I centered myself during the pandemic, and how I approach life in general. I know family is most important. In our world, our phones are always in our pockets and it’s easy to let them distract us instead of really engaging with our families. I have two young children, Kaia, 5, and Danny, 2. My wife and I both understand how important our roles are in being present in our children’s lives.
However, even with this outlook, I still felt the stress of the pandemic. The thing that really got me through the changing world was running. I always liked to run but haven’t done it for years. My wife and I started running together and recently completed our first 5k race.
I also have the support of my fellow nurses. We stayed open with each other about what we weren’t sure about and would get together in very small groups outside of work in the parking lot just to debrief and share anything that we experienced during our shifts. — Daniel Bley, Patient Care Center Nurse
‘Mental illness has changed the lives of so many people…’
I have been a nurse at Jefferson for 36 years. I started in the Emergency Department as a staff nurse and had many other positions along the way to where I am now—Director of Nursing Clinical Applications. Through my years in nursing, I have faced many challenges, disasters, and difficult times, but never like the past year and a half. I can’t express the profound challenges nurses have overcome and the incredible response to care through the pandemic.
I’m no longer a frontline nurse but throughout the lockdown, I was working hard to make sure our patients were able to zoom with their families and friends when no visitors were permitted in the hospital. I also assisted with giving the first COVID-19 shots to my colleagues and coworkers at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.
During the pandemic, I really missed meeting with my family and friends. I love walking and riding my bike along the Wissahickon Park trail, but it is not the same without a friend. My family, like so many, faced unhappy times. My 92-year-old mother fell and broke her hip. She spent five weeks in rehab, alone in her room. The zoom calls gave the family some relief but made her confused. Luckily, she is now back in her own home. In September, I lost my 27-year-old son who, like so many others, struggled when he lost his job, sports involvement, and social interactions. Mental illness has changed the lives of so many people and I pray they reach out to get the help they need. – Therese McGurkin, Director of Nursing Clinical Applications, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital
‘I often felt helpless.’
For most of the country the “new normal” has meant masks and social distancing, but for me and other nurses, it is a lot more complicated. As a nurse, the new normal meant N95s, face shields, gowns, and gloves separating us from our patients. It meant that we could no longer give reassuring smiles to our scared patients. It meant holding hands with strangers as they die because their family was not allowed to visit. The new normal has taken many forms for me throughout the last year.
In the first months, it felt like a mixture of organized chaos and fear. As an ICU nurse, we went from learning how to properly put on PPE one day to filling up five ICUs with patients suffering from an unfamiliar disease and I often felt helpless. I got to witness firsthand what healthcare workers are capable of when disciplines work together. As the year has continued and cases dropped this next new normal has become one of cautious optimism. The pandemic has definitely shifted my outlook overall in nursing as well as my home life. It has shown me how quickly life can change, and that every moment really does count. In my nursing practice, I now make a more conscious effort to make sure that patients have an opportunity to speak to loved ones prior to intubation. Stabilizing patients is very important but remembering that it may be their last opportunity to say “goodbye” or “I love you” cannot be forgotten.
The one thing I am still working on dealing with is feelings of guilt. Throughout the entire year, I have continuously felt like no matter what I did it was never enough. At the end of every shift I would ask myself, “Did I do enough to support my coworkers?” and “Did I spend enough time with a lonely patient?” Because of my job and exposure, I ended up missing out on many small family gatherings and I often felt guilty. I know I was just trying to keep them safe, but I could tell they were disappointed to hear that my family and I would not be there. It made me sad to know that my parents and siblings barely got to see my then four-month-old son.
Relationships with other nurses, as well as the relationships with coworkers from other disciplines are what helped me and my team stay strong throughout the year. Family and friends were supportive, but only the people in the front lines truly understood my emotions and feelings. I had a chance to watch nurses on my unit support each other, from pulling one another aside to ask how they were doing or baking a cake to celebrate a birthday. – Karen Hill, ICU Nurse, Abington Hospital
‘I’ve never been prouder to be a nurse.’
The “new normal” has necessitated, now more than ever, that we adapt to our situation and go with the flow. The COVID-19 crisis has altered so many aspects of our daily lives, without a doubt. I don’t think my outlook has necessarily shifted as a result of the pandemic. No one is promised tomorrow. I try to face each day with a positive attitude and a thankful heart and serve God, my patients, my team, and my family in whatever capacity I am able.
For me, time spent with my family is my most therapeutic outlet. I love taking my kids on outdoor adventures, reading, and spending time on my family’s farm. As a mother of three young children, I do struggle with carving out time for myself, so I am still working on this.
I’m sure I speak for nurses across the enterprise when I say that I’ve never been prouder to be a nurse. The teamwork, resiliency, bravery, and support I have seen over the course of the pandemic is absolutely mind-blowing. My team, my work family, has stepped up during the most critical moments, without hesitation. Having each other to talk to has helped immensely. I don’t think any one of us would still be here if it weren’t for the comradery and support we find in each other. – Bethany Stecher, Charge Nurse, Jefferson Frankford Hospital
‘I’ve finally stopped ignoring my mental health.’
It’s crazy to think back to a time when I just wore my scrubs home, or even went out after work without changing. Since this pandemic started, my new normal has been wearing a scrub cap to protect my hair, changing out of my scrubs before leaving work, and keeping my “hospital shoes” in a plastic bag in the car.
I’ve always been the type of person who put my own needs last. It’s been a tough habit to break, but I’ve worked hard to remember that you can’t care for others if you don’t take care of yourself first. I’ve finally stopped ignoring my mental health. I used to tell myself I was too busy to worry about it. The best therapy for me has been talking openly about the struggles of the past year, both with my closest friends, who know me better than I know myself and with my coworkers, who understand exactly how I feel because we’re going through it together.
I have the best coworkers, who have been my saving grace through all of this. I joined Jefferson in April 2020, in the height of the worse COVID surge, and joined the Jefferson Cherry Hill Hospital ICU, which had the most COVID patients. Everyone kept asking if I was regretted this decision, especially at that time, but my answer was, “not at all!” I had left a very toxic, unsupportive work environment to come to the Jefferson Cherry Hill Hospital ICU, and I am thrilled to be here. Everyone was so welcoming, and we really worked as a true team. I love all my new coworkers, and I wouldn’t have wanted to deal with COVID anywhere else. – Dana Saccoccio, ICU Nurse, Jefferson Cherry Hill Hospital