When palliative care nurse Erin Perez leaves her job at University Hospital, she phones her family to let them know she’s headed home.
At the door she puts her work clothes in the washing machine. She immediately showers and wipes down everything she has touched with disinfectant, just in case traces of the COVID-19 virus have accompanied her home.
“I’m on my fourth week of being in a spare bedroom with my own bath,” Perez told a Texas Public Radio reporter who has produced a podcast telling the stories of nurses on the frontlines of caring for COVID-19 patients.
“I have not had any hugs and kisses,” she said, explaining the isolation and loneliness she and many other nurses are experiencing as they practice social distancing to protect their families.
As a palliative care specialist, Perez often provides comfort to the sickest patients and their families. Coping with death and severe illness comes with the job. Caring for patients with COVID-19, however, has taken commitment to a new level. Gone are some of the usual routines and resources that help nurses manage the emotional stress of losing a patient.
Perez recalled the first COVID-19 patient she cared for who passed away. She wanted to provide support for the family, but had to do it over the phone instead of in person. She wanted to reach out to co-workers in the usual way, but couldn’t.
“We cannot hug each other. We cannot console each other the way we are normally doing,” she said. Instead, the nurses gathered and said a prayer, still dressed in their protective clothing while standing apart.
“You could see the devastation in everybody’s eyes. You could see the well of tears in everybody’s eyes. We’re all thinking: could we have done more?”
Perez’s training has equipped her to counsel other nurses who wonder if they’ve lost a patient because they’ve fallen short. She reminds them that not every patient can be saved. They are valued, and their skills and commitment will be needed to help somebody else.
Perez said that as she looks beyond the era of COVID-19 she sees a future with nurses who may be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD.
Helping them work through depression and anxiety will be one of the next challenges she’ll take on.