HCMC nurse: ‘I always have in the back of my mind that I’m never quite safe, but I’m trying to live life’

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. As the outbreak evolves, we will be checking in with the participants regularly. Read all of the stories here.

All interviews are conducted over the phone, and conversations are edited for length and clarity.

Jennifer Vongroven, bedside nurse, HCMC

The pace is starting to pick up at the hospital again. As of two days ago, we had 26 COVID patients hospitalized. The number has definitely gone up since [late June]. We knew this would happen, especially by the fall. 

There was a nice break for about a month where every patient I was with wasn’t a COVID patient. It was like, “Oh my gosh, the door is open to the room and you can just walk in.” But now I’m being assigned COVID patients more often in the ICU. People don’t realize how exhausting it actually is to wear that personal protective equipment all the time — it’s hot, it’s sweaty and if you have sweat dripping off your chin or nose, you can’t do anything about it.

We’re still reusing our N95 masks until they become compromised. We never had an issue with gloves. The gowns were getting a little sparse for a while, but we’re doing OK there. We still have a lot of supplies locked up. 

Right now, the demographic of COVID patients in the ICU is a little bit younger — 30-, 40-year-olds, including quite a few with no pre-existing conditions. So it’s scary. 

We’ve learned watching the disease about the encephalopathy — changes in the brian’s cognition, mentation — that happens especially for someone who has a very advanced case of COVID. 

We’re learning about everything and don’t know about what the long term effects are going to be, even for mild cases. One of my coworkers had a very mild case and now she suffers from headaches constantly. But nobody’s had this for longer than seven months — and in the United States even less than that — so it will be interesting to see what the outcome of the disease process actually is. 

One thing that has changed is the visitor policy at the hospital. Not for our COVID patients — they still can’t have visitors — but the rest of the hospital can now have one designated visitor who can come between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. It’s been great to see the families again and for our patients to have that support. 

Out of the hospital, I have gone blue in the face arguing with anti-maskers on Facebook and whatnot about the importance of wearing masks. Unless it’s an N95, a mask won’t provide much protection against COVID-19. However, it will protect every single person around you. It comes down to: Is your comfort more important than the life of the person standing next to you? And that’s all it comes down to. 

If I am walking my dog in my neighborhood, I’ll have my mask with me, but I won’t have it on if I’m by myself outside. I’m trying sailing lessons on Bde Maka Ska because I needed to get out of the house and do something normal and fun. During the class, we all wear masks, unless we’re on the boat by ourselves. I’m still not going into restaurants or bars except for one outdoor seating to meet with my dad. 

During the active protests [after George Floyd’s death], things were really rough in my neighborhood in Powderhorn. It affected me a lot more than I wanted to admit. I had a hard time sleeping and focusing on the task at hand because I’m always worried about what’s happening around me. 

That has subsided somewhat, but there are gunshots all the time now. Our new favorite game to play is: firework or gunshot? You hear gunshots every single day. 

A couple weeks ago, I had a few days off and grabbed the dog and went up north to camp in a state forest by myself and decompress. While I was gone, there was a shootout in the backyards of three of our houses. 

My neighbor saw from her kitchen window a shooter jump over the fence into her yard from our yard. They climbed up on top of the chicken coop and were shooting at someone in the alley who was shooting back. This is my backyard! The little girl in the house north of me — a bullet went through her house and over her head. She’s 6.

I’ve put up a fence, a tall fence, and although people can get over it, it’s a deterrent. It partially makes me feel bad because I’m shutting out my neighbors and shutting out the community, but I have to think about my own safety. 

[The Park Board cleared the rest of the Powderhorn encampment today.] On a selfish note, it’s nice to have my park back, albeit we’ll have to be careful looking for leftover needles because they have been spotted ad nauseum. But this doesn’t solve our housing crisis just to move people from one locale to another. It’s not even a Band-Aid; it’s just covering up the problem a little bit. The greater issue is dealing with homelessness and its causes — economics, mental health, stability. We need to focus on housing.   

I’m trying to get outside as much as I can, riding my bike, though I’m still concerned about riding home when I work late shifts. I always have in the back of my mind that I’m never quite safe, but I’m trying to live life.


VOICES FROM THE PANDEMIC

 You can read all of the stories here.