The strain on nursing staff is particularly acute. Before the pandemic, when visitors were allowed, family provided support, translation and context to the patient’s state. Now, with visitors severely restricted, the burden of caring falls mostly on our nurses. I walk into a cubicle and witness a young girl crying, struggling to bear the pain of a leukemia diagnosis — the nurse holds her close, substituting for the family not allowed into the department. I ask a nurse if she’s trying to find the pulse of a dying patient and she says in an undertone, “No, I’m just holding her hand.” The patient’s family did not want to come to the hospital for fear of Covid.
Then there is the disease itself. Thankfully, it is mostly easy to recognize — even without a Covid test. Its constellation of symptoms are obvious and specific: the chest pain like sharp little knives with each breath, the severe headache and muscle pains, the dehydration. Patients come in at first diagnosis because they feel like they’re dying. At least for the ones who present to my emergency department, it is definitely not just the flu.
From a purely medical perspective, Covid is fascinating. To be on the frontline, at a time when we are still discovering the nuances of treatment for a new disease, feels like a privilege. To be safe, treating these patients with adequate PPE and effective vaccination, in a hospital which pivots to stay just ahead of the disease, feels like a miracle. Every day I am thankful that the real surge in Covid infection is happening now and not in 2020.
Oct. 7, 2021, 6:25 p.m. ET
At the moment, a majority of our patients are unvaccinated. Some of them were too young to be eligible, some don’t believe in the disease, and some are waiting for a better vaccine. Many don’t speak English and rely on their own communities for support. I feel that we have let them down. We haven’t integrated them enough to be able to reach them in a crisis.
For a lot of them, we are their only support now that they are ill. “They treat me like a leper!” a patient with Covid who had been isolating from her unvaccinated partner and children mournfully tells me. An unvaccinated woman calls me frantically about her son, whom I have just seen. “Please don’t send him home,” she pleads, “there’s no one to look after him.” I know she’s thinking of the young Covid-positive female in the news who died alone at home that day. To be able to help these patients at their most vulnerable, facing a disease which fills them with dread, is one of the silver linings of this pandemic.