Health-care workers are desperate for Americans to listen: ‘We didn’t go to nursing school to be martyrs’

Registered Nurse Jerin George in Personal Protective Equipment at a Miami Hospital. She is the association treasurer in the Indian Nurses Association of South Florida. (Photo: courtesy Professor Bobby Varghese)

Lauren Sharp graduated from nursing school last year.

She started working on an adult respiratory floor at a public hospital in East Lansing, Mich.

Then in March, the coronavirus struck.

“Mentally, it takes such a toll on you. It makes me question so many things and it almost feels like I’m not doing anything – not helping anybody when people just keep coming in and getting sick,” she said. “Nurses are supposed to help people. And I feel like I’m not doing that.”

In the spring, when the coronavirus first hit, she says she felt physically ill and sick to her stomach with fear. She would sometimes cry on the way into work. Her anxiety has continued through this present surge, as the United States continues to hit a record number of cases daily.

Nurses, doctors and other health-care workers are facing a steep climb in coronavirus cases as the spread of the virus looks relentless in the march toward Thanksgiving. The U.S. is facing a dramatic increase in almost every single state just before what is traditionally a peak time for holiday travel across the country, a time that often causes another virus – the flu – to spread.

As a result, health-care workers are begging Americans to stay home and to refrain from traveling or attending Thanksgiving celebrations.

Many say they feel that their warnings are being ignored and that Americans either are in denial or are simply not taking the coronavirus seriously enough.

“Patients are very grateful for the care they get, but people only care about what happens to them. People are being selfish and they act like it’s not real. I know so many people on social media that went to Halloween parties, that go out to eat constantly or have these large social gatherings, and then one of them gets sick, and then they expect people to take care of them,” Sharp said. “It’s just that expectation. How do nurses meet that expectation when we are struggling with the community not wanting to help us?”

As news of the virus waxes on, with little change and a sense of ennui, magical thinking or even nihilism sets in, experts say.

“What I’m seeing is that people have given up. They think ‘Well, it’s already spreading, it is what it is,’ or ‘There’s no hope without the federal government acting,'” Megan Ranney, an emergency physician and professor at Brown University, said. “These thoughts are not correct and make me sad. We each – as individuals – have the opportunity to make a difference.”

The answer, Ranney said, continues to be neither novel nor glamorous: masking, social distancing and staying outdoors if you see people outside your household.

“Each of those actions makes a difference. And what makes the most difference is avoiding indoor dining – at homes or at restaurants – indoor drinking, indoor workouts with anyone who is not part of your nuclear household,” Ranney said. “Our health-care system is on the edge of being overwhelmed. It is a silent but very real tragedy. This is the time to double down, not to give up.”

While there’s no uniform contact tracing in the U.S., Ranney says given the current available data, every infection is causing at least two new infections. And that small gatherings can be just as fatal as large ones through community spread.

Other factors at play are people who simply deny the existence of the virus and dismiss it as a hoax or the flu.

South Dakota nurse Jodi Doering’s tweets about patients denying the coronavirus’s existence up until the moment they are intubated has gone viral over the past few days.

“I can’t help but think of the Covid patients the last few days. The ones that stick out are those who still don’t believe the virus is real,” Doering wrote. “They tell you there must be another reason they are sick. They call you names and ask why you have to wear all that ‘stuff’ because they don’t have covid because it’s not real. Yes. This really happens.”

“These people really think this isn’t going to happen to them. And then they stop yelling at you when they get intubated.”

In Boston, Maimuna Majumder, a computational epidemiologist and faculty member at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, is also witnessing disbelief in the virus.

“Covid-19 denialism is unfortunately very, very real. It’s come up often when offering guidelines to the public about how to stay safe and reduce risk during the holiday season,” Majumder said.

“I understand that folks are desperate to see their families and may be making the choice to be willfully ignorant regarding the pandemic out of said desperation, but I fear that this will translate into a grim reality in the new year as a portion of the cases that appear over Thanksgiving and Christmas inevitably become hospitalizations and deaths.”

“It’s like a cycle, a vicious cycle,” Sharp, the nurse in Michigan, said. “I wish people could be flies on the walls and actually be in a room when someone gets intubated and see all the things that we have to do.”

Some of her colleagues have already changed careers. Sharp has moved to part-time work on a pediatric intensive care unit at the hospital, forgoing full-time benefits such as health insurance in a choice to prioritize her mental health. (She is currently on her parents’ health insurance plan.) She also works several days a week conducting coronavirus tests for athletes at Michigan State University.

“I have to go in there and sacrifice my health. Are nurses supposed to do that? We didn’t go to nursing school to be martyrs.”



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