COVID-19: An Inside perspective from a Boston Nurse
By: Elizabeth Pehota, Reporter/Host for New England Revolution
“A mask has literally become my accessory,” said Mollie McLaughlin, an RN at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA who splits her time evenly between a coronavirus unit and a burn trauma ICU. “I think the next couple of weeks will hopefully give the city some validation that we can get through the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“It’s going to be difficult, especially as weather gets nicer. There’s a huge risk for a second wave. It’s more of a matter of when. The biggest challenge is that there’s still a long, long way for things to go.”
While the masses continue to stay home as the unprecedented coronavirus progresses, McLaughlin is fighting on the frontlines, and has done everything in her power to keep her patients, family and friends all safe.
The first case of COVID-19 at Brigham and Women’s Center in Boston arose on March 8th, and in just over a month, the severity of the situation severely escalated.
“It was probably the week of April 6th that I remember going to work and it becoming more of an overwhelming presence,” said McLaughlin. “We had gone from having 1-2 floors of patients to an entire building of eight floors dedicated to corona patients.”
The Brigham and Women’s Hospital changed drastically as the pandemic struck to accommodate for the unknown that loomed ahead with COVID-19.
“This is when the hospital itself took on a surge of patients as well as took nurses and doctors from all different specialties and areas, and tried to re-deploy them in a sense to put them to greater use.”
“All of the nurses that worked in the OR [Operating Room] and PACU [Post-Anesthesia Care Unit] had to learn how to be extra hands to us. I realized if they’re taking hundreds of employees and redistributing them to orient and train them on our units then this pandemic is not going away any time soon. That’s when it really hit me.”
McLaughlin’s hospital called on satellite campuses such as their locations in Foxborough and Faulkner to recruit additional staff to meet the need in the dense city of Boston.
“As hard as it’s been for inpatient nurses and doctors, my heart goes out to these people that truly have been taken from their hospitals. They’ve been brought to a spot that they’ve never trained in, never taken a rotation in the setting and told ‘you’re going to work days, nights and weekends because this is what we need’.”
Brigham and Women’s employees adapted quickly as they changed their daily practices to ensure others’ safety. Upon arrival to the hospital, they complete a short survey about COVID-19 to clear them to enter the hospital. Once they enter, they are handed a mask and they change into regular scrubs. The system is airtight.
As a petite 5-foot female, McLaughlin has an extra challenge. Since the N95 does not fit her face properly, she wears a ‘Martian’ suit to ensure her safety as well as patients and colleagues.
Since McLaughlin and her colleagues have large portions of their faces covered, they wear their names on a piece of tape and some will adhere a photo of themselves without the PPE (personal protective equipment) to show patients that they are friendly despite the intimidating equipment they are required to wear.
The system in which nurses operate has also changed drastically. Typically, there are three nurses who work as a team with patients. Now, there is still a team of three, but they function very differently: a nurse, an observer and an extender.
“The observer’s role is to literally sit outside, observe you putting on your PPE, call you out if you’re doing it wrong, call you out if you are contaminating yourself. The majority of them have come from our satellite campuses,” said McLaughlin.
“There’s also an extender. We have a lot of very qualified OR nurses who can’t work in OR and are being used in ICU as bedside nurses. They can’t necessarily give all the medication that we can give, but they’re being put in a place where they are doing assessments, giving daily medications and washing people up. They are being an extra set of hands and honestly they are a saving grace right now.”
McLaughlin believes that everyone in her field is doing their part, and that their work in tandem with community efforts to social distance has made a huge difference.
“I’ve noticed a lot more people coming out of the Corona ICU and those beds not being filled as quickly,” said McLaughlin. “I’m keeping positive thoughts that this is in fact Boston’s peak and that we’re coming slowly down the other side.”
A large part of how the city of Boston was able to tackle the influx of Coronavirus cases leading up to this probable peak is thanks to the honest assessment and communication of how the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded in the dense population of New York City.
“New York helped prepare us in a way that we never would have been able to,” said McLaughlin. They gave us plenty of prep time and were so brutally honest that it was a good tactic.
“It allowed us to be well equipped. We’ve had to get creative. For some patients in ICU’s, we use CPAP and BiPAP machines to do with what we normally do with ventilators. As sad as it sounds, New York’s assessment of the situation really helped us to better prepare.”
The Boston community has shown immense love for healthcare workers. As they are on the frontlines fighting against this pandemic, medical professionals are extremely pleased with everyone who has contributed in any way, shape or form.
“I’ve seen a lot of camaraderie when it comes to friends and family members reaching out with regards to meals, support and texts,” said McLaughlin.
Not only has the community shown support through actions, but also through public displays of messages.
“There’s a house on Commonwealth Ave that has a mask on the door and sticks with signs saying ‘we’re thinking of you’ and cute chalk designs in the city,” said McLaughlin. “Honestly, it’s the little positive things that make you realize that people are really caring.”
While healthcare workers appreciate the signs outside to the masses, a simple, personal message to them can go a long way of providing a comfort during these uncertain times.
“All of us are living in this time where nothing is normal,” said McLaughlin. “The little things are what we’re craving, whether that’s an update on a friend or a picture of a dog. A lot of us don’t want to talk about coronavirus and crave the normalcy.”
McLaughlin is also extremely thankful for the friends, family and community members who have pitched in to help nurses with meals after they finish working exhausting 12-hour shifts.
“I have a friend who is putting together a way for people to donate meals to healthcare workers and he will go to restaurants, pick them up and he’ll deliver them,” said McLaughlin. “I feel lucky that there’s been a lot of community support and camaraderie when it comes to this ‘Nurses are heroes’ situation.”
Unfortunately, the reality is that the positive messages from the community aren’t all that healthcare workers have been receiving.
“It’s been really hard,” said McLaughlin. “This is the first time in my career I feel afraid to leave the hospital in scrubs because of what someone might say.”
Prior to the pandemic, McLaughlin enjoyed living with her two friends in a comfortable apartment in the North End. However, since working with COVID-19 patients, she has taken the utmost precautions to keep her patients, the general public, and her loved ones safe. The 26-year-old rented an apartment in Fenway for two months to isolate herself completely.
As an RN, McLaughlin lives, breathes and sleeps safe practices with regard to containing potential COVID-19 exposure at work, but he unfortunately has experienced ridicule in public.
“I was [verbally] accosted by a person in a super market because I was wearing scrubs,” said McLaughlin. “The sad reality is that I had left my shift, [removed] my dirty scrubs, put on sterile scrubs, picked up my backpack outside of the unit, put my backpack on and put on a coat that had not been inside and I put on a new mask and a new scrub cap.
“The unfortunate truth is I didn’t have the energy to fight back and say that I wasn’t contaminated. As much as it bothered me, part of me remembers that he could have a family member that is dealing with this so I need to give people a break.”
Following their interaction, this man approached the grocery store manager to have McLaughlin escorted out. While the manager apologized for the situation and the customer’s behavior, it still left McLaughlin feeling again like a “germ.”
“It’s hard when the public is also partially shaming you when go to work for 12 hours,” said McLaughlin. “At work, you don’t have a break to go to the bathroom, or a break to have your dinner and all you’re trying to do after is go home, get some groceries, and get some sleep to be ready for your next shift.”
Perhaps the most difficult part of being treated poorly by a stranger and shamed for wearing sterile scrubs was that the man himself was not properly protecting himself.
“The part that bothered me the most is that the guy was in the grocery store making these comments and he didn’t even have a mask on,” said McLaughlin. “If you’re going to reprimand what I’m doing with my clothing and you’re that worried about getting ill, then you should try to put some protection into place.”
Unfortunately, this has not just been a singular disgracing occurrence.
“I know multiple coworkers who have been treated really poorly walking from their cars to the hospital,” said McLaughlin. “They might be going into work and people ask ‘why are you wearing scrubs, you’re going to get someone sick.’
“The simple reality is we’re not allowed to leave our units in dirty scrubs nor do we want to carry any germs home for our families, apartments, or whoever we’re living with.”
“You have all these people cheering for you, have your back and are proud of you, but just that one thing even though he was a stranger it seems it just really put into perspective that all of us are feeling like germs. It’s been challenging.”
What else can you do?
It hasn’t been easy over the course of the past two months for anyone. While it may be tough to stay home, it’s important to remember those on the frontlines are fighting to do the best they can to take care of all of us.
However, they can’t do that unless we all continue to stay home.
“I’ve noticed a lot of people lounging out and about,” said McLaughlin. “People were out Sunday in Southie at the beaches. I think we really need to be careful at this time. I know it’s been hard. If we all really try, follow the rules and do our part, then hopefully we can get back to normal as soon as possible.”
“Believe me, I’ll be the first person at the beach when all this open ups. We’re not doing any good if people aren’t being as careful with who they’re interacting with. As hard as it is, let’s get creative. Let’s get some sun, but also protect each other.”
The state of Massachusetts put a mandatory mask policy into effect on May 6, 2020. McLaughlin believes that it’s important that everyone follows the protocol to keep each other safe.
“I understand it’s hard to run and workout in a mask,” said McLaughlin, who is a frequent runner herself. “Even just putting a bandana on is displacing those germs so they’re not getting launched into the air.
“A lot of people I know have been saying they don’t want to wear a mask or they’ll just keep it in their pocket. The reality is that these germs are floating through the air and if you’re going to wear a mask only when you pass a person and then pull it back down, you could have someone passing that same area seconds after you.