HCMC nurse with COVID-19: ‘I’ve watched two of my coworkers on life support, and I don’t want that to be me’

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

Two days ago, on Monday, I spiked a fever and got the chills. I noticed I was having a hard time controlling my temperature over the weekend, but I thought it was because I’d been outside and then come inside. I didn’t think much about it at the time.

I went into the hospital Tuesday morning and got tested for COVID, and by that time I had body aches, nausea and just generally didn’t feel good. I proceeded yesterday as if I had COVID, quarantining, and then the results hit early this morning that indeed I do.

I was working with a COVID patient last week, and we’re pretty sure that’s how I got it. But who’s to know? I haven’t eaten inside of a restaurant since February, and I grocery shop in public once per month — wearing my mask. Even if you are wearing the proper PPE, you can still get the virus. You need to stay vigilant at all times. 

One reason I’m so terrified is that this weekend I attended a wedding of a family member. It was mostly outdoors, in a greenhouse. But because I was so concerned about the spread of COVID, I wore my N95 the entire time. I didn’t take it off even to eat. I never took it off inside, not once, not during the reception, never. 

But you just don’t know. I was worried about people at that event infecting me and my bringing it back to my patients or immunocompromised friends, and here it was me the whole time. But my mask probably prevented the spread of the disease.

I started talking to my closest family members last night and called the rest of them this morning. Most people have been very supportive. One is mad at me, and that’s hard. It’s an awful feeling. To think I could be responsible for anybody’s demise is heartbreaking. I’m carrying this huge guilt for something I didn’t know that I had. Making those phone calls has been a test of personal fortitude — of saying, “You’ve got to face up to it, you’ve got to deal with it.”

You have to proceed with life with calculated risk. You can’t just sit in your house until the end of days, hoping everything will pass. You do have to rejoin the human race, but you have to do it safely.  

One second, I just need to breathe for a second. I made the mistake of getting up and walking around and this is the first time the shortness of breath has really hit me. 

It is interesting to have COVID now after all this time fighting against it. At least now my voice will have a different meaning to it when I speak and maybe people will listen to me a little bit more when I say, “It can happen to you, it can happen to anyone.” 

I have asthma, and I’ve been worried about that. I’m scared. I’ve watched two of my coworkers on life support, and I don’t want that to be me. I don’t want to be lying in a hospital bed and having my coworkers flipping me over and changing me and putting food through a tube in my nose and helping me breathe. I don’t want that for anybody, and I don’t want my family to have to go through watching me die.  

But I’m an otherwise healthy individual, and there’s no reason to think I can’t have flu-like symptoms and be back into fighting form in a couple of weeks. 

Right now, I feel terribly short of breath. When I’m taking a breath in, the air is really thin like I’m on a mountaintop. It’s like trying to breathe through a damp sponge. But my oxygen levels are good! Oftentimes with COVID, it’s the opposite: You’ll feel fine, but your oxygen levels are way below sustaining life. So I feel like crap, but it looks OK.

I have a pulse oximeter, and if my oxygen goes below 90 and I can’t bring it back up with my inhalers, I’ll need to go into the hospital. I don’t know what’s in front of me. I just know I’m doing everything I’ve read that can possibly help. I’m drinking lots of water, which is not hard because for some reason I’m very thirsty. I’m taking Vitamin D, which a lot of people have messaged me about. I’m getting lots of fluid and rest. [Coughs.] I’m staying up on all of my allergy meds. I’m taking my preventative inhaler, because the steroid inhaler has been shown to help severe forms of COVID for children who have asthma. [Coughs.] I’m trying to really listen to my body. 

I slept for a couple hours today, but I’m mentally tired. I was just saying to someone last week how I’m exhausted. We’ve been working and working through all of this, and I said, “I’m tired of being essential.” We kind of laughed about it, and I said, “I could use a two-week vacation.” And lo and behold, that was probably the day I got infected. So be careful what you wish for. 

I think nurses in Minneapolis have particularly been going through the ringer, with the civil and political unrest and the pandemic. 

Things at the hospital had settled down at the end of summer, but they started picking up again this fall. The number of COVID patients has been increasing and we’re dealing with staffing issues. I looked at the numbers online this morning and there were [dozens of COVID-19 patients; an HCMC spokesperson asked that the exact number not be published]. We were down to almost zero before, so it’s coming back. We’re still in [good weather] trauma season right now, so we’re also very busy with non-COVID patients. 

[In terms of health care staff contracting COVID-19, it’s been] sporadic at HCMC — there hasn’t been any trend. In some respects we’re safer, because even though we’re in the quote-unquote snake pit, we’re aware of the snakes. We’re working with the proper equipment. We’re watching out for each other. Whereas some members of the general public deny there are snakes and wonder why they’re getting bit. 

But we are more at risk because we’re working directly with COVID. While we are being vigilant, when you work with a deadly virus, there’s a chance you’re going to get it. More nurses have now died from COVID than died during World War I. 

We’re going to keep doing it as long as we have to, but we are tired. You’re tired of hearing about and dealing with it, but we’re tired of fighting it. We need you; we can’t do this alone. Although we have experience on our side, we tapped all the resources we had in order to make it through last time.

For me now, I might as well just sit down and enjoy the ride because there’s nothing I can do. It’s paralyzing a little bit and I feel kind of impotent. Because I’m used to doing stuff, to walking around — “let me get you something for it, let me call the doctor” — that’s what I usually do. So it’s frustrating for my personality to just sit here waiting. [Coughs.]

People said coronavirus was supposed to go away today after the election, so doesn’t it seem fitting that I get tested on Election Day and test positive on Nov. 4? [Laughs.] It’s a little coincidental. 

This election has been stressful on everyone, no matter how you voted, because we are so divided as a nation and so focused on our differences. Things have been tough for everyone. 

I voted with an absentee ballot. I dropped it off on Tuesday right after my COVID test. I had my N95, it was outside, I touched nobody and did not stand within 6 feet of anybody. 

On election night, I was so tired that all I did was check results once an hour online. The nice thing about feeling like crap is it takes your attention away from other things. I didn’t really care all that much like I normally would. When you’re spending all your energy trying to stop the chills so you can stay warm, the election kind of goes out the window.


VOICES FROM THE PANDEMIC

 You can read all of the stories here.