Throughout COVID-19, HCA Healthcare’s approximately 98,000 nurses have displayed courage, compassion and commitment to their patients, communities and each other. These vital healthcare workers have consistently shown their resilience, stacked up against seemingly unsurmountable odds. In a guest column, HCA Healthcare nurse Kirsten Tracy shares her unfiltered experience on the front lines of the pandemic at affiliate Methodist Healthcare in San Antonio, Texas.

By: Kirsten Tracy, RN at Methodist Healthcare

When COVID first hit, I was a Surgical Progressive Care RN who knew nothing about telemetry, various oxygen sources or charging. My first assignment was in Long Island, NY, followed by various units here at Methodist, and recently going to El Paso when it started to spike there in October. I am now back home working as a newly trained telemetry nurse on 6 South as one of their designated charge nurses, realizing what a year of growth this has been.

Kirsten Tracy, a registered nurse at Methodist Healthcare

In my time caring for patients with COVID, I have had some incredible highs as well as some heartbreaking lows. My fondest memory is the celebration of a patient going home after four long months in the hospital during which he got critical myopathy, unable to move so much as a finger, and had a tracheostomy. His discharge was particularly special though because he not only had his trach removed prior to discharge, but was also able to take a couple steps again.  Working on COVID units has also left me with some of my hardest shifts ever, both physically and emotionally in my three years as a nurse. Each patient is special, but one challenge in particular has stuck out the most: holding the hand of my patient, a new widow, as she watched her husband’s funeral via FaceTime.

Shortly after arriving to shift when I was charging on 8 South, I took a phone call from a family member worried about her grandmother. She informed me that her grandfather, my patient’s husband, had just passed away the prior week from COVID and his funeral was that day. They wanted to know if she could leave the hospital for the funeral and return after, but unfortunately, that was not an option. I told them I had an iPhone, and we could FaceTime during the funeral so she could say her goodbyes. My director overheard and was able to track down a tablet for a larger screen – this was before all the COVID units had tablets on them for Face Timing families. I struggled with deciding how to proceed though. Do I set up the FaceTime and then give her privacy, ultimately leaving her to attend her husband’s funeral alone? Or do I stay by her side, giving her the hand of a stranger to hold? Neither option seemed adequate. I left the decision up to her and we ended up attending the funeral together while my director watched the unit.

I sat there silently, holding her hand during the procession.  When it came time to walk up to the casket to say goodbye, she began crying and said she wasn’t ready. I told her family to stay seated. After a couple of minutes, she looked at me and whispered she was ready, so I directed her family to go ahead and approach the casket so she could say her final goodbye.  Together, we prayed over him, cried over him, and I sat next to her as she told him how much she loved him. When it was over, I left the tablet in her room so she could continue Face Timing her daughters so she would not be alone as I went back out on the unit.

I have fought back tears as I participated in a code on a patient who I not only cared for days prior, but also got to know the names of their spouse and kids, and what they looked forward to most when they went home. Before having time to process the loss, you get called into yet another room where yet another patient is decompensating fast and you are right back in another rapid, doing everything you can to keep them alive. There is no doubt that there is a lot to process and cope with when working on the COVID units that learning good self-care methods has become vital.

(Spring 2020) Emergency room colleagues at Methodist Hospital Northeast share a quiet moment during their morning huddle.

The key for me to decompress has really been spending 30 minutes after each shift with calm and silent time to process the events of the day in a bath. This is followed by mediation-led sleep apps to help turn my mind off to the events of the day. My days off are spent snuggling my animals more and really focus on doing things I enjoy such as going on hikes with my husband or getting massages.

As difficult as some days can be on COVID units, I go back willing and ready each day because the difference each person makes is crucial in a patient’s recovery. Everyone makes a difference and everyone has something to add to improve overall care. Each facility and unit I work on, we grow and adapt, implementing things learned from prior assignments in order to make each one safer than the last. Each day is a new day and the collaboration of new ideas to care for these patients is key! All ideas are welcome to help keep this care safe and to see more people win the battle and go home.

Related article: A mental health message from Division Chief Nursing Executive: “It’s okay to not be okay”

Nashville-based HCA Healthcare is one of the nation’s leading providers of healthcare services, comprising 185 hospitals and approximately 2,000 sites of care, including surgery centers, freestanding ERs, urgent care centers, and physician clinics, in 20 states and the United Kingdom.