In my nearly 30 years as a nurse, I’d never seen anything like this disease. The hospital converted nearly all its units to treat virus patients, even opening up a wing that hadn’t been used in years just to get eight extra beds. I saw patient after patient who, no matter how much I upped their oxygen levels, kept gasping for breath. After transfer to the intensive care unit, they rarely returned.
By the time the job ended in May, I associated New York so strongly with all of the suffering and death I’d seen — all those people, of all races and ages, struggling for air — that I didn’t want to stay a day longer than I had to. I flew back to Phoenix thinking I’d left all of that trauma behind. I told myself that the worst of the pandemic was over.
What I saw at home shocked me.
In Arizona, almost no one wore a mask. People dined indoors at restaurants; they got together in sports bars; they swam in pools. In New York, the pandemic felt inescapable, but here, it was as if they didn’t think the threat was real. Even if they weren’t in outright denial about the virus and didn’t believe in conspiracy theories, they behaved like they were untouchable — like the danger was distant, and it wouldn’t affect them or anyone they knew or loved.
By July, Arizona had become one of the hot spots of the pandemic, with thousands of new cases a day. I felt an awful deja vu as, one by one, hospital units converted into coronavirus units. My phone began blowing up with requests for nurses to come to different medical facilities all over the state. A colleague who directs the ICU at a hospital in Chinle, in the Navajo Nation, told me how common it was to see multiple members of a family, across several generations, hospitalized at the same time. I took a contract at a long-term care facility in Yuma, near the Mexican border, where 12 out of 50 residents died of the virus. With this disease, there are few peaceful deaths.
Now that I’m back in Phoenix, working in a hospital’s coronavirus unit, I fear that we’ll never get this pandemic under control. One of my patients is a woman near retirement age; she worked at a hardware store, and after catching the virus, she got so sick that she’s been on a ventilator since June. Businesses like hers are open, and our leaders are encouraging people to resume normal activity. How can we contain the spread?
Compared to a few months ago, I see more people wearing masks, but a significant percentage don’t seem to understand the horror of this disease, even now. I’ve started carrying paper surgical masks around with me, and when I see barefaced strangers at the grocery store or on public transit, I’ll sometimes offer them one and tell them a bit about my experiences as a nurse. Some just shake their heads. Others ask, “Is it really as bad as people say?” and we get to talking. One couple started in with all of these questions — one of them had asthma and wanted to know if this made them higher risk if they got exposed to the virus. I was happy to help, but the interaction felt surreal. If people understand that the disease is dangerous, why aren’t they acting like it?
Even before the pandemic, there was a nationwide nursing shortage, and now, every day, I get text messages from staffing companies, begging health-care workers to come to Texas, to Florida. As long as I feel physically healthy and places need nurses, I’ll keep at this job as best as I can. But when I think about public health officials’ warnings that the pandemic has entered a new phase — that the virus has spread well beyond a few urban hot spots and now permeates rural areas of the country, too — my stomach knots up. I imagine months, even years, dragging on like this — my colleagues and I racing from place to place, desperately trying to put out the fires. I feel viscerally angry at our government for letting things get to this point. And I’m scared that the hardest weeks aren’t behind us — that I’ll just keep reliving them, over and over.
As told to Post editor Sophia Nguyen.