Caregiving during a pandemic: Black nurses share stories from the frontlines

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Black health care workers have taken their place on the front lines along with thousands of others who, since the coronavirus outbreak, have come to be known as “essential workers.” According to the nonprofit Black Nurses Rock, the nation’s largest Black nursing association since 2014, 90% of its Twin Cities chapter members work in nursing homes and assisted care facilities, two places where the virus has done the most damage.

The MSR recently interviewed two local Black nurses who agreed to speak on their daily work experiences on the condition that their identities or their place of work are not identified;  they are referred to here as “Sam” and “Diane.”

“Sometimes I feel overwhelmed,” admitted Sam, who has worked in assisted care facilities for four years. “When the virus started, so many staff took a leave of absence and quit.”

“It was frightening in the beginning, something totally different than anyone has dealt with,” added Diane, who has been in nursing for nearly 20 years.

Reports of shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE), such as N95 respirators, surgical masks, gowns and gloves surfaced as early as March, compounding the difficulty of containing the spread of the virus in the early days of the pandemic. Masks and N95 respirators help minimize the spread of the virus among health care workers.

Both nurses said that even after several months PPE still isn’t in adequate supply, which adds to stress among the medical staff. “We have to use [N95s] until they are soiled “as opposed to getting fresh ones when needed,” reported Diane.

Sam said that he’s been ordered by his supervisors to use his mask for at least a week before getting a new one. “You were told this mask must last five days…. It was scary. There’s a chance the virus will get inside the mask.”

“We just [recently] found a bunch of N95s,” said Diane.

Sam revealed that the PPE situation was worse at the previous facility where he worked. He said he felt the supervisors and others on site did not take the virus seriously enough. He still remembers a painful incident that took place in April in which two patients appeared to be very ill, prompting him to report it to his supervisor. Rather than take immediate action, his supervisors assured him the patients were okay.

“I knew the patients needed help. I called 911 and they took them to the hospital,” Sam continued. “Unfortunately, later that night one of the patients died, and the following night the other patient [also] died of COVID.” 

“I had to stay home for 10 days” as a result, he added. When he returned to work, “They provided me PPE, but I felt they didn’t care.” Sam now works at a different facility.

Both nurses were asked if they are afraid of contacting the virus and bringing it home to their families. “I love my job and I love caring for people,” said Diane. “I believe things happen for a reason and I accept things as they are.”

Sam says he and fellow staffers are tested twice weekly. Yet his concern of bringing COVID-19 home is there on a daily basis, he noted. “Working in a senior care facility, being a health care provider, I’m going to try to do my best for the patient.

“There’s nothing I can do to change the system, and that is the most hurting and frustrating thing about the COVID,” said Sam. “I feel that painfully every day, not [being] able to save patients. There’s nothing you can do but provide comfort and care, and wait for fate.”

Two COVID-19 vaccines, one produced by Moderna, the other by Pfizer, are now available, and health care workers are expected to be among the first to receive vaccinations.

Sam said he signed a form agreeing to take the vaccine as required by his employers, but he said, “Fifty percent of the staff didn’t want to sign, even after seeing so many patients die [from COVID]. 

Diane said she will take the vaccine when it is offered. “I believe that when I get [vaccinated] I will have antibodies, and my body will be able to fight it off. That’s what a vaccine does,” she said.

About Charles Hallman

Charles Hallman is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. He can be reached at challman@spokesman-recorder.com

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