February 16, 2022

I'm a Nurse and I Gave Birth During The Omicron Surge - Here's My Story

I'm a Nurse and I Gave Birth During The Omicron Surge - Here's My Story
Kathleen Gaines
By: Kathleen Gaines News and Education Editor, MSN, RN, BA, CBC

Over the years I’ve written pieces Nurse.Org that show a glimpse into my life as a pediatric and neonatal Intensive Care Unit (ICU) nurse. I have documented my journey of graduating with my MSN in Education during COVID, teaching the next generation of nurses, and surviving as a COVID ICU nurse during the worst of it. In fact, every writer has shared glimpses of their lives, both personal and professional. 

But this - this will be the most personal piece as a share what it was like being an ICU nurse and hospitalized for a week during the most contagious surge of the novel coronavirus. 

The Early Days….

Over the course of the last two and half years, I have been in the trenches with my fellow nurses and healthcare professionals working to save those infected with COVID-19. At the very start of the pandemic I worked for my hospital and city’s COVID hotline providing information on how to get tested, what symptoms to look for, and resources that were available. I spent hours talking to patients and their families that were scared to venture outside, provided comfort to those that were calling hoping we could provide information on a loved one that was hospitalized somewhere in the city, and companionship to the homebound that were alone and at very high risk for depression. 

It was ideal. I was limiting my exposure but was still able to work. We had our own little cubbies and there was strict masking at all times. Unfortunately, this “bubble” was short-lived and I quickly was thrown into the COVID ICUs as cases spiked in my area. Thankfully, I was given a new N95 for each shift but I was one of the few nurses that was not fitted with a Powered Air-Purifying Respirators, more commonly referred to as a PAPR. 

During emergent intubations, bedside procedures, and codes - I was more or less the only one not outfitted with one which was scary and disheartening. It also meant I was the first one in the room because an N95 is MUCH easier to put on than a PAPR. 

Each shift there was personal protection equipment (PPE) staff that were specifically assigned to help the bedside healthcare providers get in and out of their PPE safely. This was done to limit the exposure risk and also ensure that N95s and PAPRs were fitted correctly. These staff members also helped get the PAPRs on, even during emergent situations. Since I didn’t have one, I would throw on my N95 and try to stabilize the situation before the rest of the medical team came in. Sometimes as the monitors beeped asystole and a patient lay lifeless in bed, I was the only healthcare provider doing CPR while the rest of the team was donning the proper PPE.

(Image: Ashlee Hall Photography)

Omicron Hits

Fast forward to January 2022 and the Omicron variant was spreading like wildfire across the country. Vaccinated, unvaccinated, young, old - everyone seemed to be catching the newest variant and testing positive regardless of symptoms. 

Knowing that I would have to be tested before giving birth to my daughter was scary because despite every safety measure my family took - it was still very possible that myself or my husband could test positive for COVID-19. And then what? Would I be separated from the baby at birth like so many were at the start of the pandemic? Would my husband be allowed at the delivery? What restrictions would be in place? The anxiety leading up to those final days was immense, especially because despite being vaccinated and boosted - there was still the distinct possibility I could be positive and have no idea. 

Hospitals in the area were changing their visitation policies and while we had already decided that we weren’t going to have visitors in the hospital - by the time I went into labor this wasn’t even an option. Visitors were no longer allowed. One support person could stay at the bedside. Masks were required throughout the entire hospitalization. Was this going to be the new normal again?

Throughout my five-day hospital stay most nurses, doctors, and aides I encountered - especially on the labor floor, were wearing N95s. As a nurse, my brain immediately went to the newly released and updated guidelines by the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) regarding quarantine for healthcare workers in order to prepare for the Omicron variant surge.

Were the healthcare workers wearing the N95s because they themselves had recently tested positive and were coming back to work after the required five days? Or were they positive but asymptomatic and allowed to work at the bedside? Or was it because there were currently COVID+ pregnant women on the unit and they were caring for them? The true reason I will never know but it was a concern and a worry that I had to suppress. 

I will never forget pointing out to my husband as I walked onto the labor and delivery unit, the closed doors, the signs, the yellow isolation carts, the brown paper bags outside of patients’ rooms. I whispered to him what they meant, being careful not to say it too loud. As the days went by and he was able to venture off the unit for coffee or a short walk - he would report back how many rooms he saw with signs, carts, or closed doors. It was astounding the number and each time we were thankful that I had tested negative. 

(Image: Ashlee Hall Photography)

Thankful Moments

Despite being at one of the best hospitals in the city and top-rated maternity hospitals in the country, I couldn’t help but shake the anxiousness I felt every time I saw a staff member with an N95 on. The rational person in me wants to believe that they were protecting themselves or were wearing them because they were caring for another patient that had tested positive. 

However, lack of sleep, food, and the knowledge of the ongoing nursing staffing shortage made me internally question each nurse. They were all amazing but it was still scary. Were they potentially exposing myself and my newborn to COVID? I was masked but obviously, my daughter wasn’t. And I took my mask off when it was just the three of us in the hospital room. 

On the day of discharge, we met with the pediatrician and as we were talking, he asked what I did for a living and he asked me a very profound question. He said, “are you shocked you tested negative?” My answer was simple and without hesitation - yes, yes I was. 

I am thankful I was one of the lucky ones that despite everything and working in the trenches throughout my pregnancy - I still tested negative. However, I can’t help but think and worry about what would have happened if I didn’t. And the potential exposure from the staff members due to the new CDC guidelines. There was no way for me to ask the staff their status, I wanted to each and every time. But you can’t. 

The CDC made a mistake when it changed the quarantine guidelines for COVID-positive healthcare workers. Because the reality is - not only are healthcare workers suffering, so are the patients. 

Patients know the guidelines have changed because it has been national news for almost a month. It's very clear and while some hospitals have variations of the guidelines most have been following them. The stress and anxiety it causes the patients is unwarranted especially during the happiest (or saddest) moments in one’s life.

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