HCMC nurse: ‘It’s out of the frying pan into the fire’

Jennifer Vongroven

The Southwest Journal is documenting the coronavirus pandemic by recording the personal stories of Minneapolis residents and workers whose daily lives are in a state of flux. All interviews are conducted over the phone, and conversations are edited for length and clarity. Reporting for this project is by Zac Farber, Nate Gotlieb and Andrew Hazzard.

Jennifer Vongroven, bedside nurse, HCMC

I’m an in-patient float nurse, which means I usually work all over the hospital, but since March I’ve been working in the ICU. They’re training in ICU nurses as fast as they can. 

This last week we had to shut down [a recently created makeshift ICU on the first floor] because we don’t have enough staff. Patients who were stable were flown to other ICUs in the state.

What’s it like as a nurse in the ICU? Before you go into the room of any COVID patient, you have to wear the proper personal protective equipment. Every time we go into that room we have to gown up, cap up, goggles, visors, gloves. Then when we come out we’ve got to wipe down the goggles, wipe down the visors, toss the gown. You’re going in and out of that room multiple times per hour. I’ll dress and undress close to 50 times in a shift.

We get fit-tested for N95s once a year. They put a hood on us and spray this awful chemical, and if you can taste the chemical, it means the mask does not fit your face and you have to wear a PAPR hood. 

I’m now wearing round, hard, green N95 masks. They provide a seal, but they irritate your skin because you have to wear them for hours at a time. By the end of the day, your N95 is completely wet just from breathing and sweating into it. I hadn’t had pimples on my face since high school, but the seal of the mask and the constant oils and moistures mean none of us are looking great right now. 

Whenever you do oral care of a patient, you’re creating airborne particles of coronavirus, so you’ve got to be really cautious. I have to be extra careful because I have asthma. I had a bronchial infection in February, and even going up and down the stairs in my own house during these exacerbations is a trial. So if I get COVID, this is going to be bad. 

Caring for COVID patients is hard work. You are constantly moving, constantly going in and out of rooms. There’s just no rest. We try to get at least one break in a 12-hour shift. We’re pretty good about chasing other nurses out: “Have you had a break? Have you had a break? At least go eat something.” 

It’s high stress constantly. We’re all getting tough assignments because we have to do this in order to care for our patients. There’s rarely an easy day. There’s rarely a quiet day. Nurses never say the Q word.

People on ventilators need oral care every two hours to prevent additional bacteria from going directly into their mouths. So we clean their mouths and suction their mouths and lungs to clear out some of the gunk. Sometimes we get a lot of secretions. We constantly adjust the titrations on their sedation drips because if you’re even kind of somewhat awake, having that tube down your throat makes you want to gag and cough and pull it out. Sometimes we have to paralyze the patients. They can’t even blink. This prevents them from fighting against the ventilator so the ventilator can breathe for them.

When things get really bad we have to prone the patient, to turn them onto their stomachs. It’s harder on their faces, but it helps them live. We do position changes every two hours. Plus we go into the room on top of that — when their ventilator is honking, when their blood pressure drops, when their heart rate rises, when their oxygen saturation drops. 

The COVID patients have coarse lung sounds and are in and out of fever. The very sick ones tend to be our older patients, but it’s an indiscriminate disease. We have people in their 30s, we have people in their 80s. We have men, women of every color and background. There are also smaller numbers of pediatric COVID patients, though I haven’t worked with them. 

Unless the patient is imminently dying — like within four to six hours — family members are not allowed in the hospital. That has been heartbreaking for families not to see their loved ones. We’ve procured iPads and are doing FaceTiming so they can at least see their loved ones. I try to pop my head into the screen so they can see my eyes — that’s all they can see of me — to show that there’s a real live person caring for their loved one. 

I ask, “What are things your dad likes to listen to?” and pull up things on YouTube. I tell them, “I rubbed your dad’s back today” or “I braided your mom’s hair” — these little personal things that aren’t just sterile medical information. It’s so important to bring that human touch, so the families can know they’re not just being medically cared for but cared about.

Patients are sedated and can’t respond, but at least families can see that they’re there, that they’re alive. That brings some measure of comfort — or it makes things worse for some people because seeing them like that and not being able to touch them is a form of torture. 

One family is allowed to call twice a day approximately, though it’s not a hard and fast rule. It’s hard on the families, and sometimes they take it out on the staff. I don’t blame them because they have emotion and they need to place it somewhere. And we’re the ones telling them they can’t call more, that they can’t see their family member. Every day, we have to have the conversation, “If I’m talking to you, I’m not with your loved one.” And that creates a lot of strife within ourselves.

I couldn’t visit my own mom when she was in the hospital having emergency surgery for gallstones in Wisconsin two weeks ago. She was in horrific pain for days, and I could do nothing. I had to censor myself a little when I was on the phone with my mom’s nurse. I wanted to keep that nurse on the phone forever and talk to him because I wanted to hear how she was doing from a professional’s eyes, but I knew he didn’t have a lot of time. 

In the last few weeks, we haven’t had any decrease in the amount of COVID. I have a concern about a surge of COVID after what’s transpired in the past week. I was worried just with stores opening. We have beds, but we don’t have the staff to care for the patients. With the protests, we’ve had to airlift non-COVID patients out of the hospital to prepare for the influx of new traumas and COVID patients coming in. With basically a war going on, you have to plan for that.

George Floyd was killed three blocks from my house. I’ve been to that Cup Foods on quite a few occasions. I bike past there all the time. This is my neighborhood, these are my neighbors.

The day after he was killed, I went down to that corner, brought flowers from my garden, laid them on the corner where he was killed and I cried. I cried for the humanity. I cried for fear of retaliation. 

I come from a family of law enforcement. My dad was a cop. My brother-in-law is a cop. My sister is a dispatcher. I am in it. But I also see what happens in the community and the issues we have with race and discrimination in general. I have a unique perspective in that I’m completely torn in half by this entire thing. Not all cops are bad, but even a few bad apples will make the entire bushel rotten. 

I’ve watched the video numerous times, and you’re watching a man die. I’ve watched people die before — it’s part of my job — but I’ve never seen somebody get killed before. I knew immediately that [MPD officer Derek] Chauvin was not appropriately restraining George Floyd. I watched him call for his mom and that tore me apart. When I think of the blatant stare of this man as he was squeezing the life out of George Floyd, I see a reflection of what some of our top leaders have been telling us — to use dominance or you’re going to look like a jerk. 

I fear for all cops, good and bad, for getting retaliated against. I fear for our community that has to rebuild in an already tough economic time. I fear for the surge of additional COVID. I fear for a greater divide in our community and our nation. This didn’t start with Chauvin. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. 

Last Tuesday, the day after George Floyd died, when people were coming together, was the first gathering. I listened and watched and walked down the block and back up. I saw people giving away masks and water and thought that was beautiful. 

Wednesday and Thursday I worked two 12-hour shifts back-to-back at the hospital. Then I came home and slept maybe three hours because of the flash-bangs and the screaming and the helicopters constantly swirling. It permeates all of the senses. The only way I could feel like I had some control of what’s going on was to go out there and see it for myself and live it and at least help someone.

On Friday, I volunteered as a street medic with North Star Health Collective. They usually have a 20-hour training session, but it was 20 minutes over the phone because they just needed people out there. 

They hook you up with a buddy and then keep track of you on a communication platform. You check in and let them know where the dangers are, what you’re treating, what you’re seeing. And you always have to check out so they know you’re safe at all times.

I was down at the 3rd Precinct on Friday for most of the day and into the night. I did break curfew. I wore my scrubs, though there were [rumors] the National Guard was targeting medics. I wanted the community to know I was there to help them. 

I was washing tear gas out of people’s eyes. I was wrapping up bandages where they were hit with flash bombs and bleeding into their shoes. I carried bicarbonate water for the tear gas and also burn cream, bandages, you name it. I tasted tear gas and it is awful. Once the tear gas came out, I wore an N95, a bike helmet and a full visor. N95s work wonderfully against tear gas, I discovered.

I stayed back from the front lines after curfew. I can’t help people if I am hurt. If I am arrested or I am hurt, I’m not only putting the patients at risk at the hospital, but I am also putting burden on other nurses and health workers.

Every time the crowd would surge forward, we’d go with them, keeping an eye for our exits. There were a few times when the crowd turned and basically stampeded at us because the National Guard switched out their march in a unified movement, everybody freaked and we almost got trampled.

This is the reality I’m living in. I’m in the hot zone right now. I had to close all my windows because the acrid smoke was covering everything, and of course that wasn’t great for my asthma. That’s my Target that was trashed. That’s my precinct I bring donuts to. That’s my AutoZone. The helicopters going all night. When I get up in the morning, there are chunks of burned refuse on my porch. It’s out of the frying pan into the fire. There’s no rest.

We have a neighborhood watch that runs 24 hours. We have chased white supremacists out of the neighborhood. We have found people trying to steal license plates off cars. There was a guy with a pickaxe. We’ve barricaded our street at night. 

We use WhatsApp. You sit on your porch — unless the cops come, and then you have to run inside. You say, “OK, there’s a red truck driving west on 35th, it doesn’t have license plates. I saw a nationalist sticker in a back window.” Then that gets transferred to the next neighbor down the block. We aren’t trained to do this. We’re just regular people with regular jobs doing what we can to try to protect each other.

I was actually looking forward to going to work this week to get a break from what was going on at home. Normally I look forward to my days off so I can rest, but I was actually looking forward to going to work to have “normalcy.” But there is no normalcy anymore.


A project documenting the stories of coronavirus in Minneapolis. 

Doctors and nurses

Senior home staff and residents

Community leaders

Business owners and workers

 You can read all of the stories here.