A letter from an Ebola nurse (me) to the COVID-19 nurses (all of us):
It is OK to be scared.
Imma say that one more time.
It is totally, absolutely, completely, and wholly OK to be really, really, really, really scared.
It’s OK to be scared about going to work.
It’s OK to be scared about getting infected at work.
It’s OK to be scared about not being one of the “minor” cases if you DO get sick.
It’s OK to be scared about being on a ventilator.
It’s OK to be scared about dying.
It is completely normal to be scared about exposing your family to the virus.
It’s normal to be scared – terrified – that you might be the one who gets your husband/wife/partner sick.
Who gets your mother/father/Nana/Pops/beloved elder sick.
It is OK to be at the end of your tether about how to manage being the one who has to work, carry the health insurance, and figure out how to fill the next six open, isolated weeks with your children at home. And support your partner now that they’ve lost their job.
To be overwhelmed by being so frightened at the thought of having to go back to work tonight — but knowing that by doing so, you are the final fragile thread that is keeping your whole family’s life tied together.
It’s OK to be so unbelievably fucking pissed at your hospital. At the for-profit healthcare system we’ve got in this country that allows administration to endorse minimal precautions in an effort to not have to find/purchase/steal/commandeer the PPE that will keep you safe.
It’s OK to be enraged at a country so broken, so politicized, so skewed away from the tenets of basic humanity that we aren’t immediately implementing comprehensive testing, and taking even more radical steps towards mass isolation to ensure most of us make it through this alive.
Because some of us won’t.
Us. Nurses. Doctors. Healthcare workers.
Some of us won’t make it out of this alive.
And it’s OK to grieve.
And grieve hard when it happens.
A little more than five years ago, I stood in the “green” zone of my Ebola Treatment Unit in Sierra Leone. I watched over the fence as one of my nurses, one of my ‘national’ nurses, a nurse from Sierra Leone, fighting to save her own country, her own people, was escorted out of the back of an ambulance into the “red” zone, tired and pale and sick, had her blood drawn by her co-workers in full PPE, and was housed in the “Suspected” ward.
I stood there, and I wept. I cried and cried and cried. I couldn’t touch my face to cover my tears, so I just wept openly under a hot, hazy sky.
Gabriel, having left his family safely in northern Sierra Leone to come south to fight for his country as well, was one of our ‘sprayers.’ (They walked with us in the Unit and sprayed everything except the patients with diluted bleach, both before and after we touched it.) He walked up behind me, and stayed precisely three feet away from me.
“Don’t cry, Martha.”
I kept crying. “I am so FUCKING SICK of nurses and doctors dying. I am so FUCKING SICK of this thing killing us.”
“Don’t cry. It will be OK.”
I looked at him, red-faced and swollen and utterly broken. “How do you know? How will it be OK?”
Gabriel paused for a minute, looked at the sun behind the clouds, looked at the big trees covered in red dust outside the walls of the ETU, looked at the walls of the red zone, at the shack behind the “Confirmed” ward where we stacked the bodies of the dead, soaked in chlorine bleach and zipped into bodybags, and soaked in bleach again.
“I don’t know.” He said. But he smiled at me, just a small, comforting smile. “I don’t know how. But it will be OK.”
I signed up to be an Ebola nurse.
I chose that path, deliberately, passionately.
You didn’t sign up to be COVID-19 nurse.
You didn’t choose this path.
You didn’t get any choices about this at all.
It’s OK to be scared.
It’s OK to be angry.
It’s OK to be exhausted.
It’s OK to be sad.
It’s OK to grieve.
Find your steps along this path in the way that feels right to you.
Be angry. Scared. Tired. Sad. Terrified.
But never forget that along with all those other feelings, you’re still – and always will be – a nurse.
Never forget the strength and history and legacy that comes with that title.
Even if you don’t feel it, it’s there.
You are more powerful than you can possibly imagine.
And as an Ebola nurse, I’m more proud of all of you than I can ever possibly say.
New Blog Post 4/8/2020: Healthcare workers: Your silence is not your shame.
New Blog Post 3/29/2020: Souls in Anguish: The Moral Injuries of COVID-19
New Blog Post 3/23/2020: There is no emergency in a pandemic.
New Blog Post 3/21/2020: This is my only mask.