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Isabel Li, BSN, RN, Nu’19

Six months after moving to Manhattan and beginning my career as an inpatient nurse, the city that I had just begun to call home became an epicenter for the COVID-19 pandemic. In under 48 hours, my acute surgical unit transformed into a full, 34-bed COVID ICU.

I’ll never forget the sense of dread as patients arrived one after another with increasing oxygen requirements that warned of imminent intubation. Within hours, we undertook a panicked scramble to find the bare minimum of critical care nurses, unfamiliar equipment, and protective wear to adequately care for these quickly deteriorating patients.

The next two months became a blur. As inpatient nurses, we know to expect the unexpected every time we arrive for our shift at work. Gaining familiarity with our job responsibilities, patient population, and fellow interdisciplinary team members ensures that we are able to provide excellent care when situations go awry. Yet as this virus quickly overwhelmed our hospital, the saying “you never know what you’re walking into” rang truer than ever before.

At first, I worked as a “runner” to deliver ICU nurses what they needed from our dwindling inventory of supplies and medications while they buckled down in patient rooms for hours at a time. We attached extension tubing to medication pumps to be able to titrate drips without having to don PPE. When we ran out of extension tubing, we fashioned our own using three sets of primary tubing.

On the days I wasn’t needed as a runner, I was assigned to other floors where unfamiliar patient populations had been hastily consolidated together. Brave travel nurses arrived to decrease our nurse-to-patient ratio (1:3 on the worst days), but their impending departure forced us to consider an abridged orientation to critical care nursing.

There was no time to process the trauma we were living – the deaths we had witnessed, the never-ending nightmares, the fear of bringing the virus home. Sweating profusely under thin plastic gowns with the tight elastic of N95s and headgear, we became new ICU nurses.

Now, as our patient census slowly decreases and the unit enters an eerie slumber of mostly empty beds, we ask ourselves what will become of our once bustling surgical floor. Of those remaining patients that have been intubated and on ECMO for over two months, who will make it out? When NYC sees its second wave of COVID-19 cases, will we get the break we desperately need before we are called to action once again? All we can be sure of is that we will get through this together.

To submit your own story, visit www.nursing.upenn.edu/humans.