Belinda Myers, RN, BSN – Jefferson Health, Cherry Hill, NJ
In early March of 2020, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, a message was sent out to all the nursing staff asking if anyone would be willing to help out in the ICU (Intensive Care Unit) due to the surge of critically ill patients. The surge of patients and the need for increased support on the unit was truly a tragedy that was hitting hospitals across the nation, with the New York and New Jersey areas suffering the worst. At a time when most people were learning to wear personal protective equipment and being urged to stay inside and reduce unnecessary exposure, the doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff were ramping up and working harder to meet the increasing need for the critical care of those infected.
The rate of infection was so high, that hospitals were having difficulty keeping up with the need. As a nurse of 20+ years, I knew in my heart that I could not ignore this call for help and I willingly stepped up and volunteered. My nursing career has primarily been in behavioral health, but I was willing to step out of my comfort zone to assist whenever and wherever I could. In anticipation of increased infections, the hospital was preparing and pulling staff from all areas of nursing to support the ICU.
On my first day pulled to the unit, I was greeted by the Acting Manager and the Charge Nurse. Not only did they make me feel welcome, but they also made sure that I had an N-95 mask and a face shield, and that I understood how to wear and safely remove my gown. It was obvious from the start that they worked together as a team and that their safety and mine was the priority. I wanted to help in any way I could, so I jumped right in to assist with routinely cleaning, organizing, and backfilling supplies. I watched and listened to each nurse give a report and the more I watched, the more I learned and recognized the doctors, nurses, and techs as dedicated, courageous, and strong professionals—true frontline heroes. They faced numerous challenges and they had to be creative with the deployment of the IV pumps, the ventilator alarms, and the numerous connections, recognizing that this equipment had to remain outside the room to reduce contamination and allow for easy monitoring. The IV pumps, ventilator alarms, and vital signs of each of the patients required constant attention. Alarms would sound and every nurse would quickly respond and assist as a team. At first, my contributions included assisting with ADL (activities of daily living) care, running to and from the lab and pharmacy, suctioning, finger-sticks, and IV medicines.
Before we could enter the room of a COVID patient, we would have to have our gowns, gloves, N95 masks with surgical masks as a covering, and face shields on, as well as any supplies we needed. Having to utilize PPE was a little concerning, even unnerving, due to the fear of making a mistake that could lead to your own infection and potentially serious illness. Early on, there was a belief that proning patients would assist in their recovery.
Two nurse educators led a team that managed the process of proning patients. As part of the team, we would place patients on their stomach for so many hours a day and then return them to their backs. For this to work, you had to have an entire team, including respiratory, to move and monitor the patient. I was fortunate to have been part of this team. They taught me how to place electrodes on a patient to monitor vitals and how to safely disconnect IVs and turn patients toward the ventilator.
The nurses and doctors would have rounds for each patient, each day. Pharmacists would have to evaluate the medications each day and make suggestions for the best treatment. The team worked endlessly from the moment they arrived on the unit until they clocked out. There were days when we knew we were losing a patient and the nurses would be right there, by their side, to comfort them and be with them. With the exposure concerns, family members were not permitted to visit, so the nurses would bring in their Rovers and FaceTime or call their loved ones to give them a chance to talk. The nurses went out of their way to comfort patients and try to keep them connected to their families. I know this gesture meant a great deal to the patients and their families.
The Security team members were also unsung heroes during this time because they had to be contacted to support the transport of deceased COVID patients to the morgue and, when the morgue was full, to the area designated. This required them to be gowned, masked, and gloved to ensure their safety, and I am certain the frequency of this task had to take a toll on them. Housekeeping, in gowns, masks, and gloves, would then have to sanitize the room in preparation for the next patient suffering from COVID.
The administration staff would also make rounds on the unit to thank the staff for everything we were doing and to let us know they were there to support us in any way. They did their best to ensure we had the PPE, guidance, supplies, and support we needed to keep going each day. The doctors and the acting manager would also show their support by ordering lunch for the unit, and there were many days when family members and loved ones of the COVID patients would donate food to the staff as a show of their support.
The only thing more compelling than the selflessness, drive, and dedication of the staff to be there for our patients and each other was the level of recognition and support we received from everyone—the hospital, the community, the media, and the public. The entire Jefferson hospital staff worked as a team, truly came together to answer this call for help, and did so in the face of great uncertainty, some fear, and unprecedented devastation—COVID-19. I am proud to be part of this team, who were on the frontlines of this battle and earned the title of “Frontline Heroes.”