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"A lot of anger at people you don't know:" what it's like to be a COVID nurse right now

illustration of nurses and doctors wearing PPE
Kevin Kobsic
United Nations / Unsplash

We’ve been hearing a lot about the numbers of this COVID-19 surge. How many cases. How many deaths.

But healthcare workers want people to understand what it feels like to be back here, fighting this battle again, inside the hospital.

“Initially, there were a lot of feelings of anger.”

Eric Kumor is a nurse at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing.

“It’s also kind of sad. Because when you walk into the unit and you see suffering, um, there’s just this feeling of sadness that I’ve never seen in my career before.”

Kumor’s been a nurse for 10 years. But the last few weeks he finds himself having to kind of gear up emotionally to walk into the hospital and start his day.

“And within 30 minutes, like two of our nurses are already just in tears, from ‘These are what my patients are doing, these are how many patients I have, how am I going to get through this day?,'" he said.

Sparrow Hospital, where Kumor works, is getting so full, they’re starting to move non-COVID patients out of the main hospital to another campus. And they’ve converted Kumor’s unit from regular, inpatient care, to handle overflow COVID patients.

“I've never seen patients get sicker quicker in my career,” he said.

Meanwhile, more of their own staff are testing positive.

With about four COVID patients for every one nurse, there’s no time for the small stuff, the connecting with patients. They’re stretched too thin.

"I wish I could go door to door and tell everybody how real this is. That we might have bed for you. We might have a nurse for you," Kumor said. "But it's going to be unlike anything we've ever seen in a hospital setting. And it's going to be a real challenge to give you the care that we want to give you because of how sick people are."

Those people include the elderly couple from Dansville. The person with disabilities from the adult foster care system. The people from fancy homes right outside Lansing and the farmers from Westphalia.

Kumor’s seeing them all.

“And I tell them not to feel guilty. Like some people will feel guilty. Like they said, ‘I did the best I could.’ And I'm like, ‘Now is not a time to put blame on yourself. Now is the time to try to do what we can to get better.’”

Mostly, though, patients just want to see their families, he says. They’re so isolated.

Kumor says there’s this feeling of loneliness at work all the time now.

“And when yourself are more alone because you're in a room gowned up, people can't see your face. You feel for your patients loneliness and you also feel for your own loneliness,” he said. 

Kumor says he knows it’s hard for people who aren’t seeing these patients, these overflowing units, to understand emotionally why they’re being asked to do these really hard things.

Like not seeing your family this Thanksgiving. Because it is hard. Even for him.

But personally, he keeps coming back to this image: Of his coworker, another nurse, holding up an iPad for a patient who spent an hour saying goodbye to her family. Alone.

“That's what I wish I could just, you know, scream and tell people, is like, ‘That's what could happen to you. Personally you could be alone," Kumor said. "Or you could see someone you really love, and you couldn’t be with them when they’re at their most vulnerable and they’re suffering.’ Or when they’re at the end of their life. And that is something I will never forget.”

Sparrow Hospital estimates it will hit capacity possibly some time next week.

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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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