Local Nurses Speak Out
Four nurses share what it's like at work and at home as they fight to save us from COVID-19 — and ourselves.
By Todd VanSickle | Dec. 5, 2020
Ask any nurse right now; there’s a good chance he or she has a story about crying in the bathroom while at work.
Although nurses have always had to deal with stress on the job, the COVID-19 pandemic has only made things worse as a second wave pushes northern Michigan hospitals to capacity, leaving nurses to care for more patients infected with a highly politicized but deadly virus.
Prior to the pandemic, nurses experienced workplace stress at a higher rate than most other professions, according to the American Holistic Nurses' Association. The pandemic, however, has greatly exacerbated stressors, including physical demands, management issues, lack of resources, and difficulty balancing home and work responsibilities.
Additionally, nurses are at a higher risk of being exposed to the virus, all the while confronting conspiracy theorists and naysayers as the number of COVID patients and related deaths continue to grow at alarming rates.
Northern Express recently spoke to four nurses who deal with the effects of COVID-19 — at work, in public, and at home — on a daily basis.
Nurse Robin Walicki, BSN, RN
District 10 Health Department
Nurse Robin Walicki has been the clinical supervisor for District 10 Health Department’s Family Health Division for about a year: “Right before COVID came along,” she said, with an uneasy chuckle. “It has really shifted what we do.”
Walicki’s workload has more than doubled since the pandemic. She normally handles communicable diseases and immunizations.
Nowadays, the nurse said COVID has been the focus of her job.
In the spring, the District 10 Health Department was approving testing by various providers and sending numbers to Lansing. Walicki said making sure correct data and numbers are accurately reported to the state is a big part of her job.
“If someone was in the emergency room or physician's office, the provider had to fill out a four-page form. It was created by the CDC, and we basically had to make sure that the testing was appropriate,” Walicki said.
COVID-19 is tracked through the Michigan disease surveillance systems where communicable disease positive results are recorded.
“We were working around the clock — and then very quickly it really ramped up here, and we had a new role to play,” Walicki said. “A lot of what we do is been notifying people to stay home, interviewing them, and doing case investigations for contact tracing. As the numbers have increased steadily throughout the year, we've had more and more work to do in that role.”
She said it’s disheartening when she looks at the data and interviews and sees that people are not staying at home, especially when they’re sick, or not wearing masks.
“We're seeing the outcome, because our [number of] cases are so much higher, and we're starting to see more deaths,” Walicki said.
Making a tough situation worse: She receives a lot of angry phone calls from people claiming that COVID-19 is a hoax or telling her “It's not a big deal,” or “It's just the flu.”
“For the most part, though, I would say, I have seen a lot of people really cooperate and really take it seriously — more than what I thought,” Walicki said. “But there is a very vocal group out there that doesn't believe in what we're doing, and that can be very frustrating.”
Some of those people include Walicki’s own family. Her parents live nearby, and she worries that they will fall ill with the virus, but her daughter and husband have different views.
“I live right in the middle of the spectrum of opinions,” Walicki said. “My husband does the complete opposite of my parents, and I have to strike the balance in my own house in order to get along with my spouse. Sometimes my husband and my 25-year-old daughter say what I’m doing isn't making a difference, and to let people live their life.”
Many nights when the nurse comes home from work, she takes a minute to grab something to eat — usually a frozen dinner — then starts up her computer and is back working again.
“It really does impact your family life, because it's all you talk about, and your family really doesn't want to hear about it 24/7,” Walicki said. “I've had a lot of issues with my husband being upset. We had some interventions, like getting off my phone or computer. I am trying to do better, but it's a challenge.”
The stress can sometimes be too much, she said, and she has hit her breaking point several times, usually at work.
“I had some meltdowns at work in the middle of the summer,” Walicki said. “I had a week where I was pretty delicate. Each day I was crying at work for a couple of hours — and partly because I feel bad for our team and how much stress they’re under. We keep pivoting and adjusting, adding to our team, training new team members. It really wears you out.”
The last time Walicki cried at work was a couple of months ago when her manager came into her office and witnessed all of her devices ringing and pinging. That was right around the time when area schools began seeing a rise in positive COVID cases.
“I just couldn’t take it anymore, and I cried, like, the whole day,” Walicki said.
Despite the challenges and struggles she faces at home and at the health department, she has found a silver lining in such critical work: It’s creating closer relationships with the community and various organizations.
“We're trying really hard at the local health department,” Walicki said. “Even though sometimes it's quiet from us out there in the social media world, we are putting in countless hours and weekends — everything we can do to keep people safe.”
Intensive Care RNs
McLaren Northern Michigan Hospital, Petoskey
As of mid-November, McLaren Northern Michigan Hospital in Petoskey had at least 26 COVID patients.
Two registered nurses, who care for COVID patients in the hospital’s intensive care unit, agreed to speak with the Northern Express anonymously.
COVID has made their job more stressful, which is partly attributed to being asked to do more with less.
“It's a lot more stressful,” Nurse 1 said. “It was stressful anyway, but now it's more scary than it was before. We are spread really thin.”
During a time when staffing is short and the stakes are higher, nurses are required to take extra precautions and wear more personal protective equipment.
“Everything we do takes longer, requires more precision, more mental and emotional thoughts. And we're doing it with fewer people and fewer resources,” Nurse 2 said. “It's much higher acuity. As far as the patients, we have to not only take care of them, but we also have to protect ourselves, the community, and our colleagues. It's very mentally taxing.”
The nurses say it is a process just to enter the isolated COVID area, which is behind three zippered walls and requires clinicians are in full PPE. Getting resources or staff, like a respiratory therapist or physician, into the unit can be challenging. However, the nurses are often the ones on the front lines dealing with the patients.
“It is not as easy to care for these people, who are a lot sicker than a lot of other patients in the hospital, even in the ICU,” Nurse 1 said. “You have to think through everything and plan ahead, and if you're in an emergency situation — sometimes that's hard to do."
The stress of seeing people sick and dying has always been an emotional part of the nurses’ job, but now it is significantly more intense, Nurse 1 said.
“Watching families suffer and patients dying alone is hard,” Nurse 1 said. “And knowing that we've worked so hard to provide the best care we can, but we're not going to save their lives."
Because the nurses put their lives on the line and witness the deadly effects of COVID-19 each day, they say they’re frustrated when they hear how misinformed patients are and how politicized the virus has become.
“I need to insulate myself from it because when I see it or hear it, it takes me to a very dark place,” Nurse 2 said. “It makes me angry, but it also makes me feel so defeated because I don't know how we can make it any more clear. I don't know how these people tie their shoes in the morning if they can't see that this is real.”
Nurse 1 has taken care of COVID patients who didn’t believe the virus was real; many have died. She thinks more people would think differently if they were a nurse or simply contracted the virus.
“It's easy to deny something that you aren't up to your neck in every time you go to work,” Nurse 1 said.
The frustration with the naysayers goes beyond the hospital unite. The nurses are in disbelief when they see so many people not wearing masks or not wearing them properly in public. To make things worse, they have been scowled at and even harassed for wearing a mask.
“My children have been treated bad because they're the only ones in the gas station wearing a mask,” Nurse 1 said. “To me, it's maddening.”
Over the course of the pandemic, the attitudes towards nurses have changed, according to the RNs.
“It's not the same as it was back in the springtime, where you were a hero,” Nurse 1 said. “Now, you get dirty looks if you have your scrubs on in public, whether they're clean or you just got out of work. I feel like we're treated more poorly. It is not the same as it was nine months ago. You're not a ‘healthcare hero.’”
Recently, Nurse 2 found herself caring for a COVID patient who might have contracted the virus from President Donald Trump’s Nov. 2 campaign rally in Traverse City.
“I had to go in and care for this person, and it was very difficult to separate my true feelings,” she said. “I mean, he set himself up. And now I'm going to put myself at risk because he was careless.”
Both nurses said they support Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s attempts to fight the pandemic and think President Trump could have done more, instead of politicizing the virus.
“I think, politically speaking, Donald Trump is disgusting, and the way he's handled this has been disgraceful,” Nurse 1 said. “And I do believe it has cost lives. … We do not have a Biden/Harris tattoo, but we do have nursing degrees, and we are devoted. This is a really hard time to be a nurse.”
The nurses said they can’t take all the credit in the fight against the pandemic. They said McLaren is doing the best that it can do, and their coworkers play an equally important role in combating COVID-19.
“The support among the healthcare providers and the nurses is phenomenal,” Nurse 2 said. “We have come together. We were already a great team, but this has strengthened our bonds. We aren’t the frontlines of this fight; we are last line of defense. The frontlines are the ones out there that should be wearing a mask, social distancing, and washing their hands.”
Triage Nurse Miguel Shuff
Grand Traverse Women's Clinic
Schuff has worked at the Grand Traverse women’s clinic for about eight years. Her husband, David, is a registered nurse and currently working at Munson Healthcare’s COVID unit.
In mid-November, Shuff, who normally works five days a week, took a couple of days off for the first time since April. The main reason was to spend time with her kids, who are struggling with the pandemic both socially and academically.
She has three kids ranging from elementary school to college age. Her daughter in middle school has been having a hard time with online school.
“She hasn’t been very successful with it,” Shuff said. “With me and my husband working, that has been challenging.”
She admits that her job isn’t as stressful as her husband’s, but she still finds the level of stress has been elevated in her workplace. Her office has limited the number of patients that come in to see the doctors, and Shuff is responsible for determining if patients should come in for an appointment or schedule something online.
Overall, she said the clinic’s patients have mostly complied without objection to the safety guidelines and wear a mask when coming into the office.
“Up into the recent uptick in cases, I felt safer at work than I did out in public,” Shuff said. “Because that is where you see people showing their feelings about wearing a mask. At work, we adhere to the regulations. It is scientifically proven that masks work.”
Occasionally, she does get calls from patients complaining that they can’t bring someone to their appointment for support. The Women’s Clinic cares for a number of patients, many during and directly after pregnancy.
Despite feeling safer at work, she still has concerns that she could contract the virus — possibly through her own family, including her college-bound daughter.
“They are finding that people her age are transmitting it more,” Shuff said. “And David working on the COVID unit poses its own challenges as far as being comfortable with close contact, where that has never been an issue. We are definitely not used to that.”
Her husband reassures her that he feels safe at work and wears all the proper PPE.
“I have never have been there before or seen it, so it is hard for a spouse to accept that,” Shuff said.
She thinks that her kids are held to a different standard because both of their parents are nurses and could potentially be at a high risk of being exposed to the virus.
“It is like they have to be even a little more distant,” Shuff said. “There is this underlying stress and guilt if I was to asymptomatically spread it. I worry about it.”
In the past, the couple rarely talked about work at home.
“Before COVID, it was possible to not bring the stress of work home,” Schuff said. “But now that David works in the COVID unit, he has been talking about it more. I think it’s his way of venting.”
Shuff and her family have also noticed how her husband’s demeanor has changed after working long hours at the hospital.
“We talked about it as a family,” Shuff said. “David has this habit lately, after a couple of 12-hour shifts, to come home and look for an argument within the family. We all talked about it. I can recognize that he is stressed out.”
The family hasn’t decided on the best way to deal with the added stress but is exploring some options. Her daughter’s pediatrician recommended counseling for her, but due to COVID-19, the family is finding that most mental health professionals are either not taking any new clients or offering counseling over the phone or online only.
“We weren’t comfortable — and she wasn’t either — establishing that kind of patient-doctor relationship over the phone,” Shuff said. “It is our first time as a family looking for some extra support, and we can’t get it right now. That is why I was at a point that I had to take a day off work and support my kids.”