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The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the nature of work for many Americans. Michigan Radio’s series “How We Work” is exploring some of those changes through the eyes of a variety of workers.

Before COVID, he loved being a nurse. Now, he's a line cook.

Original photo courtesy of Dale Young/Bridge Michigan
Art by Emma Winowiecki

Eric Kumor could be making as much as $6,000 a week as a travel nurse. Instead, he’s working as a line cook and host at a barbecue restaurant.

After spending nearly a year and a half of the pandemic treating COVID-19 patients at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, you literally could not pay him enough to go back to nursing.

“There’s no way you could talk me into … walking back into a hospital, walking back into what I perceive to be a completely miserable situation,” Kumor said in November, sitting in the home he shares with his wife and their cats in Lansing. “It’s a mess right now.”

Over the last year and half, Kumor talked periodically to Michigan Radio about life in the hospital during COVID. When he quit this past summer, he joined the ranks of 18% of the country’s healthcare workers who’ve left their jobs since February 2020, according to a poll by Morning Consult. In Michigan, staffing shortages have forced hospitals to close hundreds of beds, and delay countless medical procedures even as they’re inundated by waves COVID patients.

Through interviews with Kumor throughout the pandemic and after he decided to leave, he traced the real-time evolution of a nurse who saw the job as a true calling, to someone who feared the work was hurting himself and potentially even his patients.

A love story, and a global pandemic 

Before the pandemic, nursing was a love story for Kumor. The job found him back when he was a young college grad with a biology degree, drifting through the medical research field.

“I met an occupational health nurse at that job,” he said. “And she's like, ‘What are you doing here?’ I'm like, ‘I don't really know.’ And she's like, ‘Have you ever thought about nursing?’”

So he thought about it. “I like science. I like people and caring for others. And that’s kind of a good recipe for a nurse.” After graduating from nursing school, he spent the next 10 years working at the bedside.

Then came March 2020.

“There’s just this feeling of sadness that I’ve never seen before in my career,” Kumor said in late 2020, during Michigan’s second surge. “I walk into the unit and within 30 minutes, two of our nurses are already just in tears. And I don't even know if it's from what their patients are experiencing, [or] just trying to like, ‘How am I going to get through this day?’”

He and his team had never seen so much death before, Kumor said. But he was amazed at what you could normalize.

You could normalize losing one patient after another. You could normalize a kind of nursing you wouldn’t have recognized a year earlier, Kumor said. Nurses could go nearly half a day without even being able to check in with all their patients.

“No one’s gotten bathed in days,” Kumor recalled. “There’s no personal connection to any of my patients. Like, all these standards that people held for themselves, we’re just like, ‘We don’t have time to do that right now.’”

A mass exodus

By the spring of 2021, everyone was leaving, Kumor said. “Judith, Sarah, Heather, Elizabeth, Shelby, Danielle,” he said, ticking off names of colleagues who’d left.

As the pandemic dragged on, he felt like he had to fight to get even basic support from the hospital’s administration – more respiratory therapists, more help with a record number of patients.

“You didn't feel trusted,” he said. “I've been doing this for a long time ... I know how to handle this. My word should mean a lot when I say I need something.”

But Sparrow Hospital currently has 200 open nursing positions, said Chief Nursing Officer Amy Brown. “We can't give what we don't have,” she said. “And so it's not that we don't trust people when they're saying, ‘I need more staff.’ We just do not have that.”

Still, Kumor felt increasingly disillusioned. After 13 years of nursing, it felt like the hospital was, “first and foremost, a business.”

“Your eyes are just wide open to this stuff where it's like, who's slowing down? And who's recognizing what I've gone through? What my coworkers have gone through?”

But slowing down simply isn’t an option for hospitals right now, Brown said.

“We're backed up [with] 60 [patients waiting] in the [emergency department]. So we don't have the time to say [to a patient,] ‘Oh, you can just stay one more day.’ When they are medically able, we are truly looking [for] how can we get them out?”

Deciding to leave 

By this past summer, Kumor didn’t recognize himself anymore.

“All the things that make you a good nurse, I don’t have that left in me anymore,” Kumor said. “I don't have the ability to be an advocate. I don't have the ability to be empathetic.”

So, 16 months into the pandemic, he quit. It was anticlimactic. There was no big goodbye party. “Who’s going to send you off, the new people who don’t know who you are?”

Kumor made himself a deal: for one year, he was going to do something that had nothing to do with nursing. He wrote a list of things he liked: baseball; cooking. When a nearby barbecue restaurant opened up, Eric walked in, handed them his resume filled with about 13 years of nursing, and got a job offer the next day.

It’s good for him, he says. The people there are laid back. “It’s like ‘Eh, this didn’t get done.’ No one died. Literally, no one died.”

Yet he’s kept his nursing license up. He still believes in the fundamentals they taught in nursing school, the value of caring for another human being. Maybe he just got too invested, he says.

“But I don't know, that's just who I am,” he said. “So maybe that's just not healthy for me.”

At Sparrow, Brown is hoping Kumor and those like him, the ones who left during the pandemic, can still be lured back.

“What if [Kumor] came back for one eight-hour shift [a week?] Because then I think that he wouldn't be burning himself out, but he would still be staying in the profession. And if everyone did that and just gave a little bit more, maybe that'll maybe that'll help.”

Kumor, meanwhile, has set himself a deadline: Next summer, one year after leaving nursing, he’s going to reassess. He’s good at nursing. He cares about it. He just doesn’t know if there’s a way to do it that’s good for him, too.

Michigan Radio's mini series How We Work highlights people from different sectors of the labor force—from nurses to sex workers—and explores their changing relationships to work.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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