HCMC nurse: ‘We’re exhausted and exasperated’ and it’s going to get worse

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

I still have some shortness of breath and I’m still coughing a little bit, but I’m feeling much better. My taste and smell is mostly back, though I’m a big fan of Diet Pepsi and it’s missing flavor. The taste buds aren’t working on the center of my tongue. 

But my appetite is returning, and overall I feel pretty darn good. I managed to put down a pretty good Thanksgiving dinner. Because I’m teeming with antibodies as we speak, I was able to visit my parents in La Crosse, Wisconsin. We had turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and I made pretzel buns and lefse. We still practiced as much social distance as possible, making sure the tables were about 10 feet apart, just to be on the safe side. 

I have been doing a lot of research on antibodies. From what I’ve been reading, the apex of the antibodies in the body are between 60 and 90 days from when your symptoms resolve. So right now is a very good time for me to strike while the iron’s hot and go out and do things. But I will continue to do things safely on the presumption that even if I can’t physically pass the disease to someone else, I may be carrying it on my clothing or my person. So I have to be careful and try to maximize my time with others while making sure that everybody’s safe. 

At HCMC, we’re now around where we were at the pandemic’s peak in the late spring/early summer, and we’re expecting more. 

Some people wondered if there’d be a holiday surge. The answer is: “Absolutely, heck yeah, 100%, sign me up, that’s what’s happening!” You see on the news that this was one of the busiest Thanksgivings and you wonder, “What the hell are people doing right now?” We all want to rejoin the human race, but we can’t without consequences. 

We have lots of staff who are out — many with COVID, but people tend to get the flu or cold this time of year as well. We’re stressed to the max because there aren’t enough bodies to go around. There are more beds than we have nurses to fill the bedsides. 

They’ve offered bonuses to pick up extra shifts and increase the number of hours you work in an average pay period. Most days they’ll ask if you’d like to stay late. But overtime is a short-term answer to a long-term problem. 

I’m back working my full schedule, but I am not taking overtime at this point because I need to make sure my body is getting what it needs. I don’t want to commit to anything until my body is healed enough. I’m still huffing and puffing when I take one flight of stairs. 

I know there’s a lot of belief in the community that this disease isn’t as bad as it still is. People keep talking about deaths with COVID — more than 270,000 deaths and the number growing exponentially. But it’s not just the deaths. Even for someone with a super mild form of it, like myself, there may be consequences down the road we aren’t aware of yet. Once you’ve had chicken pox, you can get shingles many, many years later; we have no idea what this disease holds in store for us. And for people who’ve been extremely ill, many of them will have long-term effects and never return to baseline. Even though they haven’t died, their life will never be the same again. It’s not just the number of deaths, it’s the number of people affected. 

I’d like to talk about what happened on Monday. It’s Monday, and I have a patient who has COVID. This patient has been in the hospital with COVID for a week or two, and now this patient denies our request for a ventilator. It is a vehement “no,” and we have to honor it. Maybe their brain isn’t getting enough oxygenation, maybe it’s their choice. But we can’t get a hold of a family member to intervene, to make decisions for them. We can see this patient’s oxygen dropping and their mentation changing. But we have to go with what the patient says. And two hours after the patient refuses the ventilator, the patient is gone. 

Due to HIPAA, I can’t share the patient’s age or gender or race, but I will say that English was not their first language. So I searched the internet for music in their language and words I could say so that the last thing this person heard was in their own language. That’s all I could do, and I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a family member in another country dying, with nobody next to them to give comfort. 

It’s tough because it’s not just the people who die who are affected. Maybe the family member won’t know what happened because we couldn’t get a hold of them. Maybe the nurse went home and cried that night. Maybe a lot of people are affected in a lot of different ways by this disease. 

But we’re going to keep doing this, because that’s what you do. It’s tough, but I wouldn’t be anywhere else because I’d rather be there than have that person die alone. There’s an expense to this work, but that’s why we’re nurses. We do the hard things, the gross things that other people don’t want to do, don’t want to see and don’t want to talk about. 

We’re exhausted and exasperated. Four days ago I was told that this disease is a lie and that hydroxychloroquine is still the answer. I have no more words. I’ve said everything I can possibly say and repeated it how many times? But this disbelief is still out there because people are promoting this disbelief. To sit next to able-bodied people who refuse to believe in science is harder for me as a human being than sitting next to someone and watching them die. 

We haven’t heard anything about vaccine rollout yet at HCMC. I’m so happy they’ve come up with a vaccine for this terrible, terrible disease, but for a vaccine to be rolled out this quickly is of some small concern. There’s more chance for inevitable quote-unquote bugs. 

Do I want to wait for the second or third iteration? Considering I have some natural antibodies right now, I have the gift of time on my side. But I hope it becomes available soon to our elderly population and our health care workers.


VOICES FROM THE PANDEMIC

 You can read all of the stories here.