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Florida Matters: Nursing In The Heart Of The American Pandemic

Jun 30, 2020

On Florida Matters this week, we're taking a look at life behind the front lines - the front lines of the war on the coronavirus.

Many first responders - doctors, nurses and people just willing to lend a hand - have forsaken the relative comfort of their own hometowns and ventured into the epicenter of the virus outbreak.

That would be New York City, where more than 200,000 confirmed cases of the virus have so far resulted in more than 17,000 deaths. That's by far the highest concentration of both cases and deaths in the U.S.

We hear from some military reservists who got an assignment recently that they never could have imagined:  being asked to don civilian gear and head to New York when the city's hospitals - and morgues - were overwhelmed.

Then, we'll talk with Veronica Mejia, a recent graduate from the University of South Florida's nursing school who went up to NYC for the first time for three weeks during the heart of the outbreak.

You can hear Florida Matters Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. on WUSF 89.7 and at WUSFNews.org.

Here's an excerpt from our conversation with Victoria Mejia:

Did you ever feel helpless to change a situation like you wish you could and just, there was nothing you can do, whether these people were too far gone or you didn't have enough supplies?

Yeah, I definitely did feel helpless a few times.

Something that I love to do, and I've done this since I was in the ICU - when I know that someone, we've maxed out everything, we've maxed out all of their drips, we've done every last-ditch effort that we can possibly think of which on these patients is, you know, a lot of them are on these machines called oscillators, which is a very last-ditch effort, their vent settings were just insane. I mean, it's very high peaks, and he had super-high like pressures, just because of the nature of this disease.

They were maxed on every single trip that you could think of, and they just weren't getting better. They were getting worse. They were clotting off on their dialysis machine.

So on a few of those, it kind of, we reached a point where, like, "Okay, well, we're not gonna be able to do this anymore. And we need this machine to be used for someone that's not clotting."

So you have to call it quits on a few patients that you're not going to be able to help. It was very difficult and made me feel very helpless.

And then I love being able to sit there and hold my patient’s hands as they're passing away, because you can you can tell based on their vital signs, everything that's going on, when that's going to happen. However, I can remember just one time there was a patient, you know, no family is there. So you're the only one and I refuse to let someone leave this earth alone.

So you sometimes feel like you have to play God, I guess you have to choose who can continue and who can't continue. It must be very tough on somebody, especially for somebody of faith like you.

Yeah, so at this point, there was a patient who he was passing away and I wanted to sit and hold his hands. And so I have my phone in a bag and I played calming, relaxing music and I put it next to his ear. And I was holding his hand and then another patient started coding. So I had to run over to that patient. And I was like, there's no way I'm not going to be with this patient during this time. There aren't enough people.

So we were able to stabilize that patient just in time for me to run back over and grab this guy's hand as he passed away. And fearing that that would happen when I wasn't there, that was really hard for sure.

This must have been really exhausting for you. I would imagine at the end of three weeks, you were probably ready to come home?

I was definitely ready to come home.

Most of us ICU nurses, we went back to school because not working at the bedside and ICU is mentally, physically, and emotionally draining. I was tired by the end and then having to just carry all this load of emotional distress, just knowing that you are the only person with them and you are taking on the burden of being their entire support because their family just can't be there.

So you're taking on that burden as well, the healthcare burden. And then you're just physically exhausted because everything was so, so busy, but I refuse to not turn my patients every two hours, I refuse to not give them oral care every two hours. So for that reason, I just never sat down and I was pretty exhausted by the time I left. But I also felt very, very confident that I gave the best care that I could possibly give.

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