‘The hardest part is trying to be with the patients at all times, especially if they are going to pass away’

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MANCHESTER, NH – It isn’t the 12-hour shifts, the headaches caused from wearing an N-95 mask all day, or how hot it is under layers of PPE (personal protective equipment) that is the hardest part of being a nurse on a COVID floor.

“The hardest part is trying to be with the patients at all times, especially if they are going to pass away,” says Danielle Gerrior, 31, a registered nurse at the Elliot Hospital.  “That’s the hardest part.”

Patients who have contracted the infection enter the hospital alone and because of how contagious the disease is, their family members can’t be with them.

“They come in for a short time and most patients are – I don’t want to say they are dying alone but they are dying with a nurse holding their hand, trying to comfort them in their final moments.  That’s the hardest part,” she said.

Much of Gerrior’s day is spent Facetiming with families so they can be with their loved ones when they are not doing well.

Word searches and coloring are activities nurses give to those patients able to do them, to help them “pass the time and the loneliness,” she said.

In her 8 ½ -year nursing career, caring for COVID patients is the most challenging.

“We’re still orienting new nurses, and this is all they have known the whole time they’ve been a nurse,” she said.  “It’s hard because being on the COVID floor you’re doing things differently to try to keep your patient and yourself safe but you want to teach the best you can and encourage them because they’ve gone into nursing because they want to help people and care for people.  They are on the front line making a difference.  It is exciting for them but it’s also really scary because the patients are really sick.”

She said the patients are much more acute. They can be very stable for a couple of days and “they just take a turn for the worse and they need much more oxygen.”

Gerrior said she hasn’t seen anything like this before.

“I think it’s a very meaningful time to be a nurse and it’s very rewarding but it’s also very hard,” Gerrior said.

She would never think of changing her career.

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Danielle Gerrior, 31 – in her plain clothes – holding her niece Addison on Feb. 11, the day she was born. Courtesy Photo

“I feel I was born to be a nurse,” she said.  “I should be there for the COVID patients who are really sick and couldn’t be there with their families.  They’re so scared and you’re the person in the room that’s assuring them, taking care of them and making sure they feel safe.  It’s why I became a nurse.”

She said the hospital is very prepared. 

“Our director was on the COVID floor Thursday making sure we have everything we need,” Gerrior said.  

Gerrior works three shifts a week, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.  Prior to heading to the hospital, she will receive a text telling her whether she is assigned to the COVID floor or a regular floor for the day.  She said that is helpful because “depending on what scrubs you put on, it can get really hot with all the PPE.  So, you can plan which scrubs to wear that day.”

She brings a clean set of clothes with her to change into at the end of the day.

Once at the hospital, and before getting out of her car in the morning, she puts on her N-95 mask.

Outside each COVID patient’s door is what is called the donning and doffing station.  Each nurse must put PPE on in a particular way: first gloves, then the gown, a bouffant cap to cover their hair and then booties to go over shoes.

Each station has hand sanitizers, sanitizing wipes and a trash can.  An instruction sheet is also posted outside the patient’s room showing how to properly put PPE on and how to take it off.  Someone else has to take the PPE off “because when you are taking it off  you have to be very careful about what you touch first, second, third so you don’t expose yourself,” Gerrior said.

A PAPR (powered air-purifying respirator) must be donned when nursing patients who need special equipment to help them breathe.    The PAPR, she said, looks like a space helmet.   She said PAPR, which removes contaminants and provides purified air, is needed because a breathing machine or breathing treatments push the air around the room “spreading the virus in the air presumably.” 

Wearing so much protective gear – “looking like you’re heading to outer space,” she said makes it hard to connect and relate to patients who miss their family and are scared by what they are going through.    

 Yet, making that connection with a patient is a big part of nursing care.  “You can’t forget about that but it’s hard to connect with another human when you are still holding their hand but now there’s a glove between you,” she said.

At the end of the day, Gerrior changes into her clean set of clothes, puts the worn ones in a bag and heads home to her two dogs.  She lets them out and then heads to the basement where her soiled clothes are divided in two piles – regular and scrubs to be washed separately. 

GSNC 2 ColorThese articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org


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About this Author

Pat Grossmith

Pat Grossmith is a freelance reporter.