By Mason Glanville
Every nurse knows the burden of having to be the helper when there is truly no more help to give.
At the start of the pandemic, everyone in the emergency room where I work understood that our strength would be tested. Even though business proceeded as usual and people streamed to our front door with their medical crises, the world’s tension grew quietly inside of us and we tried to prepare for a startling future. The hospital system barraged us with emergency protocols and supplies, and we waited for what was happening in New York and Detroit to reach us at home in Grand Rapids.
This has not happened yet. With heavy government control, the spread of the disease through West Michigan is very slow. Even while other cities are strained beyond what their resources can cope with, our patient volume is hovering near historical lows, and some departments are laying off nurses. Yes, we take care of COVID patients in close physical contact, but being called heroes by the media feels awkward and overstated. Without hesitation, we are doing our jobs as we always have, even though serious risk to us and our families lies invisible but seriously elevated.
Ever so slowly, however, our lull is disappearing. Once in a while we pause and take notice: “It seems like more COVID today.” One patient. Two patients. Four patients. Six patients. Someone bring the extra ventilator. Get this patient to the ICU.
It is getting worse, and I only work at a small hospital. We aren’t overwhelmed, but we have flickers of the worst case scenario.
With the country hurries to reopen its usual economic activity, hospital workers have excitement just like everyone else, but also a serious doubt that now is the time for millions of people to re-enter their social networks across neighborhoods, cities, and state lines. If only the eager protesters in Lansing could see what we see on the worst days.
Receiving a critical COVID patient by ambulance is a spectacle like no other. In the ER, we get notice of their arrival a few minutes in advance and begin preparing for the patient. All the information we have is a couple words like “severe short of breath possible covid” or “collapsed, respiratory distress possible covid.” We gown up, pull on our face shields and masks, and wait for the stretcher. Respiratory therapy waits in the wings in case an intubation is needed.
As soon as the patient is with us, a team of nurses, respiratory therapists, technicians, and a doctor crowd the stretcher and begin the work of saving a life. IV lines go in, measurements are made. The doctor orders medication, watches oxygen levels, and tries to think 10 steps ahead of the respiratory crisis. In the worst moments, of course, she may decide to intubate. The lights are blindingly bright and there are medical instruments all around. Even the staff can’t breathe because our adrenaline is running and our respirator masks restrict the airflow to our lungs.
At this stage of the disease the patient may already have spoken their last words. If intubated, the plastic hose goes straight between the vocal cords. And there is no pause for sentiment. The scene is ghastly. It is inhuman.
What I fear that the public does not understand is the extent to which we are all inside this same emergency. We are all potential members of the feared statistic.
The emergency will be played out slowly in our own communities, amidst our own families. People can choose to be worried or not, but with 330 million people in the US, and being more interconnected than ever, we have reason for pause. What does 2% death mean? What does 0.6% death mean? What does a peak look like if it is in July, August, or September? What if there is a new outbreak in the fall? Which one of our loved ones will it be?
Despite all the sadness and fear, I want to think of the lockdown not as an inconvenience but as a real life metaphor of what society could make of itself in this long lasting era of political rage, economic inequality, and environmental upset. Lockdown is not an overlaid reality obscuring the way things should be, it is a living reality proving to us our flexibility to change the way things are. There is no force of nature saying that we must return to our vacation destinations and once again crowd inside malls to buy things from other nations. The reality is that we have all the time in the world to reshape society so it better protects humanity and gives us all a life worth living for generations to come.
What if, forever, we stayed close to home? What if we continued to find creative ways to buy and sell from people who were physically and emotionally close to us? What if we befriended the neighbors next door in addition to the strangers we find online in unknown cities? What if we knew our butchers and craftsmen by name instead of by reading about them as faraway others; “3000 Smithfield pork packers laid off amidst…”
What if factories for obsolescent trinkets disappeared and thousands of workers returned to work at small businesses in their own neighborhoods? What if we took care of our oldest family members in our homes instead of in ‘facilities’? What if we pooled our resources to bail out families in need instead of frail airline companies that fill our skies with carbon gasses and screeching noise?
One key difference between an airplane and a family is that the airplane cannot grow compassion in its heart no matter how many billions of dollars are put into it.
Nobody will deny that modern industry and modern medicine are miracles of ingenuity. This is not a question. The question I have nevertheless is “what if we all decided not just to stay home but to love home?”
Helping coronavirus patients into their deathbeds, I feel that we in the ER have witnessed a side effect of the modern world that we are building for ourselves. A side effect of rapid travel, crowded cities, and globalized commerce.
Besides the sick, billions of other people right now are suffering from an economy they cannot control, in a world where money changes borders as often as it changes hands.
Hearing educated people argue with doctors, knowing that the vaccine to this disease will spark political fury, and seeing people form armies in the halls of the capital at the same time as Michigan hospitals are losing patients for lack of space, supplies, and support– I have to ask whether the worse emergency is in the hospital or outside of it. I want a name for the stranger, darker process that it seems knowledge and compassion can’t heal.
What we can ask as we dream of the future is what kind of world we want to return to time and again, and what kind of world we will gift to the next generations. Inside of our homes and out, will we realize that we get to craft the legacy of humanity on Earth?
In many years, when our society finds its final moments, will we burn ourselves out in a screaming inhuman emergency, or will we carry on patiently with the maturity of dignifying, untiring commitment and say that we helped the world in every way we could?