Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Death, Through a Nurse’s Eyes

Video by Alexander Stockton and Lucy King


Death, Through a Nurse’s Eyes

A short film offering a firsthand perspective of the brutality of the pandemic inside a Covid-19 I.C.U.

I was looking through the window of a Covid I.C.U. And that’s when I realized I might see someone die. I didn’t even know who she was. But I was filled with immense grief as she edged closer to death by the hour. What I didn’t know yet was that by the time I left just two days later, at least three patients would be dead. The vaccine offers hope, but the sad truth is that the virus continues its brutal slaughter in I.C.U.s like this one in Phoenix, Ariz. The only people allowed in are health care workers. They’re overworked and underpaid in a deluged hospital. I wanted to know what it is like for them now, after a year of witnessing so much death. Eager to show us their daily reality, two nurses wore cameras so that for the first time we could see the I.C.U. through their eyes. “Unless you’re actually in there, you have no idea. Nobody can ever even imagine what goes on in there.” [MUSIC PLAYING] This I.C.U. contains 11 of the hospital’s sickest Covid patients. Most of them are in their 40s and 50s. And they are all on death’s door. It’s an incredibly depressing place. I blurred the patients faces to protect their privacy. But I also worried that blurring would rob them of their humanity. The family of this patient, the one who is rapidly declining, allowed her face to be shown. And they readily told me about her. Her name is Ana Maria Aragon. She’s a school administrator and a 65-year-old grandmother. Sara Reynolds, the nurse in charge of this I.C.U., organized a video call with Ana’s family to give them a chance to be with her just in case she didn’t make it. “It just breaks my heart when I hear families saying goodbye.” You might expect the doctors to be running the show. But it is really the nurses who are providing the vast majority of the care. “We do everything. We give them baths every night.” “Rubbing lotion on their feet.” “Shave the guys’ faces.” “Cleaning somebody up that had a bowel movement. It doesn’t even register as something gross.” “Look, I walk into the room. I say, hey, sounds like you have Covid. And I might order a chest X-ray. I might order blood work. I might order catheters. All that stuff is done by the nurse. I may have spent 10 minutes. The nurse might spend seven or eight hours actually in the room, caring for them. Let’s say there was a day that nurses didn’t come to the hospital. It’s like, why are you even opening?” “Ibuprofen.” 12-hour-plus shifts, isolated in this windowless room, these nurses survive by taking care of each other. “Aww, thank you.” And by finding small doses of levity. [MUSIC – JAMES BAY, “LET IT GO”] “(SINGING) Wrong. Breeze.” “I’m getting older now, and there’s all these new young nurses coming out. And I feel like a mom to all of them. Morgan, she’s got big aspirations. She loves to snowboard, and she’s so smart. And Deb, Deb’s just— she’s funny.” “I tease her all the time. I can tell her to do anything, and she’ll just do it because I think she’s scared of me because I just always say, make sure you have no wrinkles in those sheets.” The patients spend most of their time on their stomachs because it makes it easier to breathe. But the nurses have to turn them often to prevent pressure sores. There was one woman in her 50s who was so critical that this simple procedure risked killing her. “Even just turning them on their side, their blood pressure will drop. Their oxygen levels will drop.” “Her heart had actually stopped the day before. And so the concern was if it was going to make her heart stop again.” “Then come over. Push.” “We were all watching the monitors.” “I felt relieved like, whew, we did it.” Arizona’s a notoriously anti-mask state. And it faced a huge post-holiday surge in Covid cases. In January, the month I was there, Arizona had the highest rate of Covid in the world. As a result, I.C.U.s like this one have too many patients and not enough nurses. “Because they’re so critical, they need continuous monitoring, sometimes just one nurse to one patient with normally what we have is two patients to one nurse. But there definitely are times when we’re super stretched and have to have a three-to-one assignment.” A nurse shortage has plagued hospitals over the past year. To help, traveler nurses have had to fly into hotspots. Others have been forced out of retirement. Especially strained are poorer hospitals like Valleywise, which serves a low-income, predominantly Latino community. “Many of our patients are uninsured. Some of them have Medicaid, which pays something but unfortunately not enough.” This means they simply can’t compete with wealthier hospitals for nurses. “There is a bidding war. The average nurse here, give or take, makes about $35 an hour. Other hospitals, a short mile or two away, might pay them $100.” “We lost a lot of staff because they took the travel contracts. How can you blame them? It’s sometimes a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a lot of money.” “Every single day I’m off, I get a call or a text. ‘Hey, we desperately need help. We need nurses. Can you come in?’” This nursing shortage isn’t just about numbers. “Physically it’s exhausting. We’re just running. We don’t have time to eat or drink or use the restroom.” “They have kids at home, doing online school. And I think, gosh, they haven’t even been able to check on their kids to see how they’re doing.” “My days off, I spend sleeping half the day because you’re exhausted. And eating because we don’t get to eat here often.” Nurses have been proud to be ranked the most trusted profession in America for nearly two decades. But during Covid, many worry they aren’t able to uphold the standards that earned them such respect. “I can’t give the quality of care that I normally would give.” “It’s absolutely dangerous.” “That’s demoralizing because we care. We’re nurses. It’s our DNA.” Ana had been in the hospital for over a month. Her family told me she was born in Mexico. She came to the States 34 years ago, first working in the fields before eventually landing her dream job in education. She’s beloved at her school. Former students often stop her in town and excitedly shout, Miss Anita. She was very cautious about Covid. She demanded her family always wear a mask and yelled at them to stay home. Yet, tragically, she somehow still caught it. “She had been declining over the course of several days. It’s a picture we have seen far too often that we know, this one is going to be coming soon.” Because there is no cure for Covid, the staff can only do so much. Once all the ventilator settings and the medications are maxed out, keeping a patient alive will only do more harm than good. So Ana’s family was forced to make a tough decision. “And I talked to family and let them know that we have offered her, we have given, we have done everything that we can, there’s nothing more that we can do. The family made the decision to move to comfort care.” “If I’m there while someone’s passing, I always hold their hand. I don’t want somebody to die alone. That’s something that brings me peace.” “Thank you.” “Thank you.” “Dance floor is packed. People hugging, holding hands, and almost no one wearing a face mask.” “I think like many health care workers, I’m angry a lot. And my faith in humanity has dwindled.” “How can you think this isn’t a real thing? How can you think that it’s not a big deal?” “Free your face. Free your face.” Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has advocated for personal responsibility over mask mandates even though he’s been photographed maskless at a gathering and his son posted a video of a crowded dance party. “Even on the outside, they go, I don’t care. I’m not wearing a mask. I’m not getting the vaccine. That’s bullshit. The second they come into the hospital, they want to be saved. Never do they say, ‘I made the decision. I’m accepting this. Don’t do anything, doctor.’” Half a million people in this country have died from Covid. Many have been in I.C.U.s with nurses, not family members holding patients’ hands. “I always wonder, are they still going to be there when I get to work? It’s on my mind when I get home. Are they going to make it through the night? There’s one that I can think of right now.” One patient in his late 50s was so critical that he required constant supervision. Each of his breaths looked painful. “There was one day that he was kind of— he was looking a little bit better. And so he was able to shake his head and smile. And we set up a video call for him. And it was just the sweetest thing ever. I could hear his little grandson— he was probably 4 years old or so. And I saw him on the screen, too. And he was just jumping up and down, so excited. ‘You’re doing it, Grandpa. You’re doing it. We love you. Look at you. You’re getting better.’ It just broke my heart. It broke my heart. He’s one that I don’t think is going to be there when I get back on Sunday.” But I’d already been told something Sara hadn’t. The patient’s family had decided to take him off life support. “Yesterday they did? Oh. And I just think of his little grandson. And ‘you’re doing it, Grandpa. You’re doing it.’” He wasn’t the only patient who didn’t make it. When I went back to the hospital, I noticed that the bed of the patient I’d seen get flipped over was empty. My heart sank. I knew this meant she’d passed away. “What’s sad is when I go back, those beds will be full. They’ll have somebody else there just as sick with another long stretch of a few weeks ahead of them before it’s time for their family to make that decision.” I’d never before seen someone die. And even though I didn’t know these people, witnessing their deaths left me sleepless, exhausted, and depressed. It’s unfathomable to me that these nurses have gone through that every single week, sometimes every single day for an entire year. I assumed the nurses must block out all the deaths to be able to keep going, but they don’t. They grieve every single one. “I’ve always loved being a nurse. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. And these last couple months, it’s definitely made me question my career choice.” And what makes their situation so tragic is that many of these nurses hide their trauma, leaving them feeling isolated and alone. “We’re the only ones that know what we’re going through. I don’t really want to tell my family about everything because I don’t want them to feel the same emotions that I feel. I don’t want them to know that I carry that burden when it— that it is a lot. I’m Mom. I’m strong. I can do anything. And I don’t want them to see that.” Leadership in the pandemic hasn’t come from elected officials or spiritual guides but from a group that is underpaid, overworked and considered secondary, even in their own workplaces. As so many others have dropped the ball, nurses have worked tirelessly out of the spotlight to save lives, often showing more concern for their patients than for themselves. I worry their trauma will persist long after we re-emerge from hibernation. Covid’s legacy will include a mass PTSD on a scale not felt since World War II. This burden should not be ignored. “Thank you. Thank you. I feel, yeah. And you’re all amazing.” [MUSIC PLAYING]

The short film above allows you to experience the brutality of the pandemic from the perspective of nurses inside a Covid-19 intensive care unit.

Opinion Video producer Alexander Stockton spent several days reporting at the Valleywise Medical Center in Phoenix. Two I.C.U. nurses wore cameras to show what it’s like to care for the sickest Covid patients a year into the pandemic.

So many Americans have died in hospitals without family by their side, but they were not alone. Nurses brush patients’ teeth, change their catheters and hold their hands in their final moments.

In just a year, we’ve lost half a million Americans to Covid-19. Vaccinations may be offering some relief, but inside I.C.U.s, nurses continue to contend with the trauma and grief of America’s carousel of death.

Alexander Stockton (@AStocktonFilms) is a producer with Opinion Video.

Lucy King (@King__Lucy) is a senior video journalist with Opinion Video.

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