Disclaimer: I am not an ICU nurse.
I am a collector of stories, a war correspondent.
My life’s work is to meet people in the brutal and bloody trenches of their daily lives and to report what I see for those who aren’t present, so they might experience something they may not otherwise be able to. I try to connect people through the affinity of our shared humanity.
This week, that storyteller’s journey led me to an Intensive Care Unit bed here in Raleigh, North Carolina, after a four-hour operation to remove a deeply-embedded benign tumor at the base of my brain. My surgeon had told me during our pre-op conversations that I’d find myself here for a couple of days so that they could “monitor my levels.” I probably should have asked what that could entail, though I’m actually glad I didn’t.
I remember emerging from the thick, grey amnesia haze, staring up into a raking rectangular fluorescent ceiling panel as my wife’s voice began to slowly pull me into the present. Surgery had went well, though my blood pressure had dropped dangerously low and they’d to insert an arterial line so they could closely watch my blood pressure with every single beat of my heart. A bladder catheter had also been inserted, as my urine output had to be copiously measured from the moment I arrived. In four different places, I was tethered to machines that made nearly all movement both challenging and painful. It was as vulnerable as I felt in my adult life—and I was the healthiest person there.
I’ve always deeply respected frontline healthcare workers, but I honestly had no real understanding of just how incredibly taxing the work they do is, the emotional toll it takes, how utterly thankless their jobs often are, and the furious pace at which they are required to both oversee and execute highly detailed lists of critical tasks—and to be jovial skilled agents of empathy on the frontlines of terrified people’s trauma. Yet, these men and women were.
Over the course of my week-long stay in the hospital, I met dozens of nurses, doctors, and medical techs, and every single one of them treated me as though I was their only patient (thought I knew full well that was not at all the case) and they managed to be both adeptly skilled and genuinely nurturing simultaneously. Three of them joyfully told me I was “the strongest person in the ICU”—and I could barely turn myself in bed, eat on my own, or wipe my behind.
Several times a day I would hear codes and alarms go off, and through the window of my room, I’d watch the nurses’ faces turn from casual to fiercely urgent and see them run down the hall toward some vital, pressing moment. And before long they arrived again at my bedside without a visible sign of the chaos they’d just been thrown into, and gave me the very best of themselves.
On my second day of recovery, I casually asked my kind-eyed nurse Tara about COVID patients. There was a long pause.
She said, “I arrived at this hospital recently. We hadn’t treated patients with the virus where I’d been.” She stopped what she was doing, looked me in the eyes and said, “Nothing I’d done before prepared me for them. I could not believe how sick they were, how long they were here—if they were able to leave.”
After a deep exhale she said, ”
And still… people will not simply do the right thing.”
I wanted to give her a hug, but wouldn’t have been able to reach her with her help.
I don’t know if unvaccinated people understand this individual ripple of their selfishness, this byproduct of their political tribalism, this specific consequence of their refusal to educate themselves. They are willfully injuring those who tend to our wounds, exposing already physically-exhausted, under-appreciated, emotionally-spent human beings to unnecessary adversity.
It should be unacceptable to decent human beings.
We need to do better at advocating for those who heal and help and save us.
We need to take greater care of our caregivers.
We need to remind people refusing to mask or be vaccinated, what the human collateral damage of their actions are to so many—least of all these sacrificial servants who give so much in the best of days.
Near the end of my stay, I asked Tara what she’d like unvaccinated people to know.
She replied while wiping away a tear: “I want them to know that I don’t want to meet them.”
She went on:
“We nurses don’t want them or the people they love to be here. We want them to be with their families and loved ones and out enjoying life—and we want to focus our energy on more people who could not avoid coming to us.”
Thanks to the extraordinary work of dozens of sacrificial servants, I am now home recovering. They are still all there, doing this vital saving work with unbelievable resilience and confounding hope. I wish more Americans wanted to make their work easier.
Tara deserves better.
The nurses alongside her do.
The frontline caregivers in their own brutal and bloody battles deserve better, too.
Please get vaccinated.
(Note: Tara and the ICU nurses I spoke to may not speak for all frontline healthcare workers. It would be a good idea for you to find some near you and ask them how they feel. Then, really listen.)