Integrating back into public after covid

Last December I was in Tucson, Arizona, for a nurse practitioner clinical immersion. I am wrapping up my last year of a Doctor of Nursing practice/pediatric nurse practitioner degree and had to go to The U of A campus to practice ortho evaluations, pap smears, and learn how to suture. At the end of the three days we had a ceremony in which we were presented with our white coat. I had struggled with some….well, post-holiday weight, to put in bluntly, so I went shopping at the local mall the night before to find something a little nicer to wear on stage. As I was checking out, awkwardly holding a hanger with a sparkly silver shirt wrapped around it, one of the three people in front of me smilingly asked what my fancy shirt was for. The three of them looked like they had just stepped out of a polygamist town – huge bangs framing their faces devoid of any emotion but forced purity, a man in the back in a black shirt and pants with a balding head. Arizona, man. I responded that I was going to a ceremony for a doctorate degree in nursing. Her eyes dulled, and she began rambling about how they didn’t “believe” in the covid vaccine, and that they didn’t know anybody who died from the virus, and they had all had covid and done fine. All three of them smiled blithely and nodded in unison.

I took a deep breath. Just when I think I can move on.

Do you know how many times I have had this conversation with other people since the whole horrible covid experience? I don’t *want* to talk about this with people like her because where do I begin? How do you break through such a combination of arrogance, ignorance, and cognitive dissonance? Does she think I am the right one to have this conversation with? I actually *did* work on the adult covid floors when I was forced to divert from the neonatal ICU and help my drowning coworkers in Hell.

Did this woman comprehend that her words ushered in a memory of the face of a brain-dead, vented, middle-aged woman who looked exactly like my high-school math teacher? The teacher who gleefully read us the real fairy tales (the gory ones) every morning before beginning our lessons on slope and y-intercept. This patient’s salt-and-pepper hair was perfectly coiffed, and appeared newly-washed and styled by the night nurse who cared for her on the previous shift. Her nails had been painted a cheery red – perhaps at a time when she was unaware that she would soon be lying alone in a small sterile room, attached to a machine that would steadily keep her body alive. I had apologized to her when the lancet clicked as a checked her blood sugar. Habit, even though I knew she couldn’t hear me.

Could this uneducated woman standing in front of me really understand that comments like hers triggered a memory of lifting the heavy arms and legs of a man who had just been removed from life support and died alone in his hospital room? A memory that included my awkward attempts at maneuvering his body into a thin neoprene bag. NICU nurses aren’t great at adult post-mortem care, in case you were wondering. This man’s nurse had begged me to help her because she was so burned out from already having done this same task multiple times already this week. I acquiesced. I felt humbled, alone in the silent room with just his body and a stream of dirty sunshine from the filthy window, and suddenly felt traitorous tears sting my eyes. His hands reminded me of my own father’s after he had passed away just a few years ago.

Did she even care that her unwelcome opinion didn’t erase the sounds of people being proned, the ones that echoed in my head for days after that awful shift? It’s the sound of a rush of air and the WHOOMP of a body hitting the air mattress as it’s violently flipped in a desperate attempt to raise the blood oxygen levels of a patient. This memory was of a young girl, the one whom the public deemed not worth wearing a mask to protect because she had had diabetes since she was a toddler. There was a tangle of flaccid legs and arms and lines and we all desperately steadied whatever we could to avoid the loss of a central line, a chest tube, a foley, or a breathing tube during the whole process. An open code cart stood watch in the doorway. She died later that evening despite the team’s attempts.

What about the coloring books on the bedside tray in the room of the young adult with a developmental delay, the ones that someone brought to help them pass the time before they, too, were placed on a ventilator that they would never come off of? The spine of the thin book was still creased open to a page where childish crayon marks silently spoke of the last bit of happy activity her hands would ever perform. She was deemed dispensable by the Arizona public, one of the ones who didn’t matter because “covid only kills people with preexisting conditions so why should I wear a mask?”. And now she was going to die.

I finally answered Polygamy woman and her audience, who stood peering at me during my pause.

“Then, ma’am, you are one of the lucky ones. I know people who died of covid. I put them in body bags. I saw the pediatric floors of my local hospital being used as overflow for the hundreds of people who died every day of covid in my own hospital. It was horrible and I hope you never have to see people die like I did”.  

They turned around and didn’t talk to me anymore. Fine with me.

I still carry all of these people with me today.  

For the rest of you, who think you get to weigh in on the pandemic if you don’t believe it was as bad as it was made out to be? If you didn’t see the floors of dying people in person like I did? You can continue to pretend that it was all fake, that the stories were exaggerated, but I was there. I witnessed the exhaustion, and the trauma on the faces of the doctors, respiratory therapists, and nurses on those floors. The cleaning staff and the CNAs who worked tirelessly behind the scenes, not getting any credit at all – they were all there, too. I experienced my own trauma, even though I don’t feel like I have the right to even talk about it because it was only a handful of days of first-hand experience for me. Other workers: they weren’t as lucky as me. They worked there, day in and day out, with barely any protection from the virus or from the hospitals that have always treated us like we are dispensable.  

Why is it that it’s the people who have had literally ZERO experience with the up-front work of the covid trenches suddenly deem themselves the experts and want everyone around them to hear about how they know it all? Oh you worked for an insurance company during covid? You are a white male with a business degree? You have an aunt who is a doctor? You have a friend who is a nurse? Your neighbor posted something on the neighborhood Facebook page that told a story about a guy who grew a second nose after getting the covid vaccine? No. You are not a covid expert. You are not a medical expert. Keep your mouth closed, please. I am begging you. I’m a human with feelings and I am tired of this wound being constantly ripped back open just as I feel like I can go out in public without a mask. Because the next time I get another one of these comments I just may end up dumping my trauma on you, the same trauma I have described here, and you will certainly regret talking to me about something you know nothing about.

The worst part about interacting with people like this is their own trumped up perception of how bad their covid experience really was. They had the HARDEST time during the pandemic. Even though they didn’t know anyone who died. They have this idea that they (or their kids) were just *so incredibly traumatized* because they had to *gasp* wear a mask when they went to Target or to school. It was *just so stressful and the kids will never be the same* – even though the kids are now perfectly healthy and were in no way directly affected by covid other than missing a few days of in-person school. It takes quite a load of narcissism and selfishness to think that wearing a mask compares at all with actually working in the hospital during a worldwide pandemic and loading dead people into body bags (including premature babies). I don’t want to hear it. Save your stories about how your child’s social life was stunted unless you want the gory details of mine. Because if you want to play this game of OH MY EXPERIENCE WAS SO TRAUMATIZING I will win. Nobody asked for this pandemic, and I hate it even more than you do, trust me. But your kid? He’s alive. Just stop. Your selfishness is so deep that you can’t even fathom that you could possibly sound as ridiculous as you actually do.

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