The coronavirus pandemic made 2020 one of the darkest years for a lot of people. COVID-19 swept the globe, upending life as we knew it and killing millions. Hospitals were pushed to the breaking point.
In mid-January, at the height of the winter surge, Riverside County saw COVID hospitalizations peak with 1,675 patients. Health care professionals were working 12 hours straight, but their Herculean efforts couldn’t stem the tide of new cases.
“Our COVID numbers at the height were 280 in our hospital,” remembers Erin McIntosh, a rapid response nurse at Riverside Community Hospital. “Today, we now have one.”
The rollout of vaccines has dramatically changed the fight against the virus. While new variants are alarming, case rates around Southern California have cratered, and many counties are steadily working toward reopening. There’s cause for optimism.
“That optimism doesn’t come very lightly. I think that during the pandemic, we were all kind of running on adrenaline, waking up every day and dealing with the hustle and bustle,” says McIntosh. “It didn’t give us much time to think and reflect on the patients that we were seeing. The downtime that we [now] have gives us extra time to reflect on those patients that we lost, and that’s not been easy for my colleagues and I.”
Throughout the most dire days of the pandemic, McIntosh documented what she was seeing and how she was feeling. The pain in her voice then was real, the strain she was under palpable.
Even though conditions have improved and the Riverside community is infinitely quieter than it once was, McIntosh says she and her colleagues can’t shake the experiences they went through together.
“We’re traumatized, really, by all the loss and death from COVID,” McIntosh says. “Being inside the hospital sometimes can bring up reminders, and I think many of my colleagues have decided to leave the profession altogether. It’s been a lot. The stress got to them, and they left the profession. And that’s profound because the ripples from COVID we’re going to be feeling for generations to come.”
McIntosh says she feels a sense of guilt too.
“I realized once all of the health care providers were protected with PPE and vaccinated, our numbers drastically changed,” says McIntosh. “I can’t help but wonder if we were actually the vectors in our communities spreading COVID.”
Her concern about possibly being responsible for spreading the virus extends beyond the walls of the hospital.
“I myself did not really go out into the community, but I know many of my colleagues … one in particular … brought it home to their parents,” recalls McIntosh. “Both of their parents died. It’s just one little example of how we are spreading it to our families and maybe even going to the grocery store and unknowingly spreading it.”
When she listens to a recording she made on Christmas Eve, detailing how patients looked fearful when they knew they’d have to be intubated, a flash of pain that formerly inhabited her voice comes back.
“Those looks and those cries, they haunt me. I think about them often,” she says. “It’s been hard to move on.”
McIntosh says she believes the gauntlet of COVID has forever changed her. But, in some ways, for the better.
“I definitely appreciate every aspect of life a little bit more, because I know how fragile it is,” she says with seriousness. “I’m proud that I was able to be so strong in those moments and hold their hand because inside I was dying, knowing that no matter what I did, no matter how hard we tried, these patients were dying, and it’s somebody’s loved one that they’ll never get back.”
In spite of the trauma she’s endured fighting the pandemic on the frontlines, McIntosh says nursing is in her blood.
“My mom was a nurse,” she says with a light laugh. “I think that I’ll be pursuing maybe a higher degree? So maybe I won’t be at the bedside forever, but yeah, I think I will be sticking with nursing.”
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