Nurse's Open Letter About Working the Frontlines Will Make You Feel Hopeful
By, Jennah Epstein-Santoyo
Jennah Epstein-Santoyo is a nurse at Cambridge Health Alliance, a Harvard-affiliated community health system located just outside Boston.
Her hospital room was filled with soft gospel music, and we had the shades open so the sunlight could warm her face. Ms. G. smiled at us, eyes closed. A Jamaican woman in her 80s, she’d been in our Comfort Care Unit for a few days now. She told a nurse the shift before that it was her time to go, she was ready.
I got the call in April 2020 that I was being deployed to Comfort Care, our hospital’s Covid-19 palliative care floor, formed during the Spring surge. My heart dropped, all I could do was cry. I had hard conversations with my husband and parents. Safe to live at home while working with dying Covid patients? Should I still see our young daughters? It was overwhelming – fearing that my work would be an infection source I’d bring home. I cried again, hugged my family, and then, like all front-line workers, I went to work.
One of the cruelest parts of the pandemic was the inability to be with loved ones as they passed. In Comfort Care, we had bedside iPads; not even close to holding hands.
I am Jewish, but Ms. G was Christian. We had several Christian psalms printed out on the unit for our religious patients, and I read aloud to her that day at work. By then, Ms. G was no longer able to speak, mostly just sleeping, peaceful. I held her hand tight in my gloved hand and thought of her family who wished they could do the same. I read her a few psalms, sang to her, and did my best not to cry into my mask. I like to think that together we found a spiritual connection, transcending our religions.
Ms. G passed away the next day.
May of 2020
Photo courtesy of Cambridge Health Alliance
I was doing Covid testing. We wore full-body Tyvek suits and PAPR masks with heavy filters that sat on our hips. We tested outside in the hot sun, but compared to working inside a hospital with patients dying of Covid, working outside was truly a breath of fresh air.
In the beginning, Covid testing was scary. Adults were anxious, kids cried. There was anger, too. Even so, most people were appreciative, thanking our team for being on the front lines, for our service, our sacrifice.
Months passed, and with more testing, strangeness waned. The weather became our most daunting challenge. Mid-summer, hands molting from repeated sanitizing and nitrile glove-changing. Come winter -- wind, sleet, and snow -- our hands froze. But on truly miserable days, we always had each other. In the midst of this deadly pandemic, our humor, tears, commitment - our camaraderie saved us in so many ways.
Photo courtesy of Cambridge Health Alliance
Full of much-needed optimism and vaccines! The first droves of public eligible for Covid vaccines felt like thousands of fresh wildflowers blooming all around. The world felt different, smelled different, it was tangible -- people were hopeful again.
When my mother became eligible, I enlisted in my first vaccine clinic. Twelve months into this pandemic: first working with patients dying of Covid; then testing people for the virus; today, giving my mom her Covid vaccine. After a year of constant anxiety about my work being a source of infection for my family, this was such sweet relief.
Prepping my mom’s arm, I thought of Ms. G, of the millions who have died, many never get to hold their loved ones. Even if we’ve survived this pandemic, we’ve all lost something we will never get back.
But I am hopeful.
Together, we are stronger than before. Can we share our struggles, keeping in our hearts the stories of those that have passed? Can we embrace life with deeper gratitude than we had before? With hope in my heart, I gave my mom her vaccine, a Band-Aid, and a long, long hug.
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