Houston Prepares for Possible Outbreak: Interview with Anonymous ICU Nurse

“Jane Doe,” Cardiac ICU Nurse, Texas Medical Center (hospital redacted), Houston, TX

As interviewed by Shell Friedman

#art “SOS” by ©2020 Balbusso Twins

The following is an interview that took place on April 23, 2020. Information in this piece has been updated within the past week as noted, since situations change daily, if not hourly. Further, the medical professional who was interviewed chose to remain anonymous, which is the only available choice in the field.

Her words were disturbing enough that this author hopes you will reconsider any desire to join the parade of those who are all too eager to return to “normal life.”

What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the past month in your ICU?

It’s the things that people aren’t thinking about that really bother me. People are very focused upon certain supplies like masks instead of shoe covers or alcohol pads. Now that we finally located a truck of shoe covers, we’re out of chlorhexidine wipes. Every time we do a blood draw, we use those wipes. 

We’ve always had drug shortages in the entire time I’ve worked in nursing. It used to be on about a six-month cycle. Now, when we get to zero of something, we’re on a two-week cycle. Manufacturers are having to respond to one thing one week, another thing another week. We’re not getting what we need.

One thing this has all cast a light on is just how many people die in hospitals. In my unit, in normal times, we have two, maybe three a week die. Right now, every hospital morgue in the Med Center is full.

Besides that, what’s the most frightening thing you’ve seen yet?

They’ve been keeping, on standby, a refrigerated truck in the Medical Center. It’s sitting between the parking garages. That freaked me out. That’s the eeriest thing. You’d think the stress and the fear of Covid would be the most demoralizing, but that truck is. Once you see that, the same kind of truck they have in cities like New York, it means you’re already losing.

[Interviewer note: per the interviewee, the truck has since disappeared, but she has been unable to get an answer as to where it’s gone. City officials have been unavailable for comment, but have hinted that equipment and mobile hospitals are on standby.]

Do you feel like we’re past the worst of it yet?

Houston has the “best numbers” of any major city. Better than New York, better than Chicago, New Jersey, Detroit… but it makes you wonder – are they accurately reporting it? Are they accurately testing? Because the morgues are full, the ICUs are full, we have a refrigerator truck, our Covid floor is full, two weeks ago we were full. Now Abbott is talking about bringing elective surgery back and reopening, whatever that means. It’s the end of April and we’re talking about how the wave has crested, we’re “past peak.” There are several models that say it’ll be in May. I don’t want to have elective surgery start again. I don’t want to be bringing people into the hospital before that wave breaks. And they just finally started testing us here, the people taking care of you.

We have what is known as “surge staffing.” It’s going to be a lot like a hurricane. People on top of people, especially if things go down the way they have in places like New York. 

Do you believe Houstonians are doing the right thing, taking this seriously?

I drive by the park every day to get to work. Except for that one weekend, Easter weekend, when Hidalgo and Turner closed the parks, they’ve been crowded – crowded. I saw a lot of bars and convenience stores were open, people were celebrating, hanging out in front, people were in there shooting pool. I don’t see people socially distancing, and they’re probably going to end up in my ICU.

Have you personally known anyone in your unit who’s been infected?

We have had coworkers who’ve been infected. I think every unit here has by now. Three in one unit pretty much sweated it out, but another one was on a respirator. As soon as they’re detected, they get moved to the Covid unit. We’re testing in waves, so I might not know for a few days if I’ve infected my family or been exposed. Now, remember, it takes two negatives in a row to know that you’re really negative. Another unit has had the greatest infection rate. I can’t really talk about it on the record. Luckily, those who have contracted it from the hospital have gotten through it, mostly. So far, the highest rate has been with the nurses, though.

How do you feel about the fact that we don’t know jack shit regarding the “viral load” and its effect upon how badly people might suffer?

I think the reason that we haven’t had the massive infections they had overseas is PPE. We wear everything, as much as we have available. But we were wearing garbage bags on our feet for a while. The people who have contracted it have been responding to codes in other departments, even with the proper PPE gear. The gowns, everything, head to toe. They’ve been exposed to the minimum it takes to get you sick, but they got sick anyway. That tells you how insidious this virus is, that you can get infected while wearing the proper gear.

We have the best epidemiology labs and hospitals in the United States. And even the experts don’t know what we’re doing with this yet. We’re throwing quinine at it? Or hydroxychloroquine, which has killed people?

This begs the ridiculous question: do you believe our government is doing what it’s supposed to when it comes to this particular pandemic?

Why are we turning to Washington, DC for this, when the medical experts are here in Houston and Galveston? That’s who we should be talking to. These are people who helped beat SARS, helped beat Ebola. This is what they work on, day and night. They know that you can walk into a cloud, an airborne cloud, an hour after the infected person is gone, and be infected. 

There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to blame the politicians, because, how do you prepare for this? But there’s another part of me that says, you knew this was coming, we had the budget for this. You needed to be preparing for this all along. This is not another SARS or Ebola. Those were bush-fires, this is setting the world on fire. You had enough warning to prevent this.

How are your coworkers handling this? You work in an area that is full of young and healthy employees, but we’ve seen a lot of cases where young people are also just dropping and/or dying.

I have a lot of colleagues who are going to the hotspots. Some are going to Italy. A lot are going to New York for huge bonuses and free apartments. There’s a lot of money around New York right now. Boston is doing the same. These other cities are poaching places that haven’t been hit as hard yet, haven’t hit their peak yet, because the pay is better. When we get to that “surge staffing,” when we hit that peak in Houston, we’re going to have to work that much harder without our pros. It’s a balancing act.

If anything, this shows that we are one planet, one people. Not even just one country. We haven’t seen what this is going to do to the Third World yet. Covid-19 hasn’t even gotten to a quarter of what it will do globally.

We barely have a skeleton of a public health system in the United States. It may be worse overseas, and we’ll see the fallout here in the US.

What would you say to the people in charge? The politicians who don’t see what you see on a daily basis?

We’re probably going to open things up in May, and it’s not an if, but a when. [Note: this was an accurate prediction.] I guarantee that’s going to start slamming shit all over again. Two waves will come back at us. Either we relax the rules so much that people recklessly endanger each other and reinfect each other, or it comes back at us from disenfranchised parts of the world. Or we stay in quarantine. No amount of whining about “communism” or whatever is going to matter.

So, people are going to have to see an apocalyptic level of death before they realize we mean it. We don’t want to listen to our higher interests right now as a society.

Do you believe that if people were able to see what you deal with every day, they might check themselves on their actions and get over their bullshit?

If people could follow me on any night of my job and see how fragile life is – even before this happened, if they could stop thinking about themselves – they would stop valuing money and power and realize that in the ICU, any day of the year, the only thing that matters is their lives. Money, power, possessions, those have no value. They can be replaced. You and your loved ones cannot be replaced. Your home can be replaced, your car can be replaced, your 401k can be replaced. That’s what you learn hanging out long enough in the ICU.

You don’t have to follow the smoke too far to see where the fire is coming from. People are blinded by their own anger and fear, and they’re out protesting. In 27 states! And now, they’re going to get sick and overload our hospitals.

On that note, what would you do about a Texas protestor who is in your ICU with organ failure or the like from Covid-19?

I’d treat them to the best of my abilities, because that’s my job. There are jokes and memes going around about people signing waivers to deny themselves medical treatment, and despite how I feel personally, I can’t clutter up the ICU with that, that’s not how it works. The hardest thing about all of this right now is that we used to have a saying back in med school, “this person might be Jesus and we don’t know it.” And we’d treat them that way.

Now we say “they might have Covid.” And that’s how we have to treat people today. Our mission, what we signed on for, was to take care of everyone, and now we have to suit up first. But we still treat them with love. It’s a lot harder right now. You can’t be as personal as you could before.

The same way nurses run toward a code, they run to New York or Italy or wherever they’re needed. We’re not doing it for the paycheck, we’re doing it because we give a fuck. Some, maybe, are leaving for the paycheck because we can’t live on this small paycheck, but we definitely all care.

You probably saw that the US had its own “Tiananmen Square guy” in Denver, standing in front of protesters who were potentially threatening a hospital – what are your thoughts on that?

I’m not personally interested in being martyred, or having guns pointed at me, but I love that the doers are standing up against the people talking the most about their “rights,” and who are writing their checks with their asses, so to speak. The “protesters” are putting themselves on the front lines of getting infected. That’s a great image for our century right now, just like the Tiananmen Square guy was an image for the 20th century.

But, if I had the opportunity, I’d love to show those guys what cowards they are. I love the image. The doers, the people in scrubs, going up against the talkers. Standing up to the people who are yelling, “I want a haircut and restaurant service. Because I’m special!” 

It happened in Colorado, the so-called hotbed of progressiveness. Some of the worst parts of this country are right outside of Houston, so it might happen here too.

You know, the same nurses who are going to New York? They’re the same who run into a code situation. But we all run into a code situation. That’s how we work.

Firefighters, and EMTs, and hospital workers, and a lot of police officers, the people on the front lines – those are the ones that run to danger. 

Are there any things that give you hope despite what is happening right now?

If any silver lining comes out of this, it’s that, hopefully, all those people I just mentioned are going to get the respect that they deserve. That people will recognize it’s the first responders that are the glue of society. There are plenty of places in this country where nurses have to apply for public assistance just to get food. Mississippi, Alabama. They can’t even buy a home, much less rent a place or get a car. A lot of nurses are working second jobs just to make a living because they make $15, $16 per hour.

Hopefully, people will realize that we can’t live without nurses, or any medical professionals. Including the people who pick up and mop up. Local restaurants certainly seem to care about us, we’re getting an awful lot of free meals at the hospital. That’s been a really nice thing.

For the first time, I’ve been proud of what I do. And everyday people have inundated us with those free meals, and with adulation. Right now, I want that to go to the truck drivers and the other service workers, to other people who are also working hard to keep everything functioning.

What are your final thoughts for the average person?

It’s not the senators or stockbrokers who will save you. So stay home if you can. Think of others. Tip your delivery and takeout people.

Maybe we’ll have a movement that comes out of this. There have been a lot of books published on “disaster capitalism,” especially after Hurricane Katrina, and how the fastest way to make quick money is to exploit others. I’m concerned that this is going to be the next gold rush for those addicted to money (which is the most damaging addiction there is), that they’re going to take advantage of the chaos of the situation, take advantage of tens of thousands if not more.

Right now, as it stands right now, the best-case scenario is going to be a half-million people dead or extremely sick. Maybe after we get into that deadfall, and see who the doers and makers are and pay them, we can turn it around. Recognize the food people, the sanitation workers, the delivery people, those who made masks and medical supplies. Those of us working in the hospital have appreciated all of these people.

Wall Street didn’t matter during this time. Remember that. Politicians need to remember that in the future. Remember who was really essential during this time. Because we can fire politicians and Washington interest groups and anybody that profits from this. That’s our job, to fire them after this is all said and done, if it’s ever said and done. Ask most people in health care right now, nobody is benefiting from the system that is in place. Now is the time to change it.

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