Before the pandemic began, I visited our local hospital several days a week as part of my work as a chaplain at a retirement community. In February, I also accompanied my then-fiancee to the Emergency Department after he injured his back and was admitted for intractable pain. I’ve been a visitor to this hospital on countless occasions over the last two years. I’ve observed, interacted with, and in some cases, partnered with the staff. I’ve met the CEO and several nursing leaders. And I’ve listened to countless patients share about their experiences. On July 13, it was my turn to become the patient.
I woke up around 2:50 am with pain very low in my right side. Going to the bathroom brought no relief. I went into our living room to see if using the heating pad would help. Around 3:15 my husband came out to see where I was and found me kneeling on the floor, with my torso resting on the couch. I was pressing the heating pad to my abdomen. He asked what was wrong and I said, “I have this strange pain. It won’t go away. The heat isn’t helping.” After a few minutes by my side, Dennis got up and went to get dressed, insisting that we go the Emergency Department.
A hospital during a pandemic is the last place I wanted to go. We also happen to live in South Florida, which is currently a global hot spot for the coronavirus. The pain was bad, but not horrible. I wanted to wait and see if it would ease. Dennis insisted that we go. Not wanting to distress my husband, and slightly worried myself, I put on my shoes, grabbed my glasses, cell phone, and purse, and got in the car.
The lobby of the ED was empty except for a security guard. She would not let Dennis enter, so I kissed him goodbye at the door and he went to wait in the car. I was quickly called into the triage room where a masked nurse interviewed me and took my vitals. My BP was unusually high, 158/100, but I did not have a fever. Due to what I was reporting, the triage nurse quickly moved me to a room in the main ED and started an IV.
Another nurse came, introduced herself, and went about the business of assessing me. The attending physician came in shortly after that and asked me a barrage of questions, but he remained by the door, roughly six feet from my bed. The only time he approached me was to do a brief physical exam to palpate my abdomen and kidneys. He said he would order a CT scan to see what was going on, and retreated to his workspace.
My glass-walled room faced the central workspace where all the medical staff did their charting and consulting. From my bed I could see them suit up to enter patient rooms for exams and care. It seems that they housed patients around the ED based on whether or not they had any coronavirus signs or symptoms. (This was assessed as patients passed through triage.) Despite being placed on the “negative symptom side” of the ED, I was given a rapid Covid test, which came back negative within about 20 minutes.
All the staff were masked the entire time I was in the ED, though the staff seemed to have a choice about what kind of mask to wear. A standard surgical mask was the most basic covering, but most staff seemed to choose an additional layer for extra protection. There was an RN who wore a N95 mask over a surgical mask. Two of the physicians wore what looked like silicone masks with large air filtration systems built in. One mask had a plastic shield to cover the eyes, the other covered only the mouth and nose.
As far as I could see, the staff impeccably practiced hand-washing and disinfecting protocols. (Wash in, wash out.) They also maintained physical distancing between themselves at all times.
Though they seemed to be functioning on a skeleton crew, the care was prompt and thorough. I received a CT scan within the first two hours of being in the ED. When the doctor came in and said, “You are going to have to stay,” I was shocked. I assumed it was the cyst on my right ovary acting up. He told me that my appendix was inflamed and needed to be removed. They were calling in a surgeon.
I texted the news to my husband. After sitting in the parking lot for two hours, he’d gone home to wait. By 8am I was wheeled to pre-op. It’s a short ride from the ED to pre-op, but the route takes you through the main hallway on the ground floor of the hospital, past out-patient surgery, the hallway to the OR and the ICU, and the main elevators. On a normal day in a Covid-free world, you’d probably see at least 10-20 people along the way. We didn’t see one.
In pre-op I was one of two patients waiting for emergency surgery. The other patient had a broken neck and seemed pretty out of it. I was fully awake and alert and on minimal pain medication, so I overheard everything that went on during my two hours in pre-op.
Three nurses worked the unit. They talked quietly behind the staff desk, but I could easily hear them through the curtain around my bed. They talked about trying to get their hours since the hospital was doing so few surgeries during the pandemic. They talked about staff who had opted to leave their jobs out of concern for their own safety. They talked about how the Covid units were overflowing and mentioned friends who worked on those units.
Several codes were called during my time in pre-op. From listening to the staff, I pieced together that the 5th floor is the regular Covid unit. Three code blues were called on the 5th floor, two in the ICU.
The anesthesiologist came to interview me before my surgery. He asked if I had been given a Covid test. I told him, yes, it was negative. He seemed surprised and said that the last three emergency appendectomies that he’d done were all Covid-positive patients. He said there isn’t a correlation between having Covid and needing an appendectomy, those patients just each happened to have the virus as well as appendicitis. I apologized for breaking his streak.
By noon I woke up in the PACU, or the post-anesthesia care unit. Generally, patients spend anywhere from one to two hours in a PACU, depending on their vitals and how quickly they wake up. Then you are transferred to a regular room. I was in the PACU for eight hours, not because I was unstable, but because (I later discovered) my nurse was protecting me like a lioness watching over her cub.
Like pre-op, the PACU is a large square room with workspace in the middle and curtained beds along the outer walls. During my eight hours there, when I was awake and alert, I saw five other patients pass through. PACU was well-staffed, so I had my nurse’s undivided attention. We spent hours talking and getting to know one another. Not wanting to be intrusive, I didn’t ask her to share stories about working during the pandemic.
After a few hours, my nurse told to me that several rooms had opened up for me, but that she opted to wait for a room in the new wing of the hospital, which is far from the Covid units. She asked if I minded waiting. She told me the wait might be long because they are short nurses in the new wing, but it would be the safest place to go. So I waited for a room until 8pm. I ate my prescribed liquid dinner of tomato soup, pudding, and ice cream in PACU. I imagine it’s very unusual to have a patient eat a meal in PACU, but I guess few things are usual during a pandemic.
I was taken upstairs by two PACU nurses since none of the transport staff were answering their calls. Again, the three minute journey revealed only empty hallways and elevators. Once in my room, I had a fitful night of sleep due to physical discomfort and the staff coming in for vitals and care. I didn’t need much from the staff as I had minimal pain, but by 6am I was desperate for a toothbrush and toothpaste. I called the desk and asked for them. The staff member who answered said they would bring them, but they were never delivered. I was discharged around 11am with haunting dragon-breath.
I’m home now, recovering. Despite having an organ removed from my body, I’m feeling pretty good and my pain is under control with only Tylenol and ice packs. While resting on my couch this week, I’ve spent some time reading the news and catching up on social media. As usual I saw reports of rising Covid numbers in the US, stories of anti-maskers, and stories of families who’ve lost loved ones and are begging people to take the virus seriously and wear masks.
On Facebook I even saw a few friends share posts that imply that Covid is exaggerated and infection numbers are inflated just so that Trump will not be re-elected. These posts turned my stomach. If you believe this, please don’t ever say this to anyone who works at a hospital. After observing just 36 hours in a hospital during the pandemic, I imagine the staff couldn’t bear the discouragement of your disbelief or minimization on top of the exhausting and weighty burden of working the Covid front lines.
Between our work places and our personal lives, My husband and I now know over 30 people who have tested positive for Covid. Two of those people have died, one of them an extended family member. All our people have told us that Covid is brutal, most saying it feels different from and much worse than the average flu. Recovering friends have said that even after they finally have a negative test, they are easily winded, have extremely low energy and minimal appetite. They aren’t sure how long it will be before they feel normal. Their doctors have said they may have long-term physical consequences due to Covid damage. “Recovery” is a long wait-and-see with little reassurance.
This post has been long and boring. It’s a bit of a personal chronicle so I can remember the experience later, but maybe you’ve found it interesting. Perhaps you don’t know how strange it is to have a hospital be full but still, with empty hallways. I do. And it’s an experience I’ll never forget.