More than a year and a half after the coronavirus pandemic started in Alaska, nurses are still on the front lines — they never left. Now a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations driven by the delta variant has emergency rooms and ICUs overflowing. The state’s health-care capacity is stretched to a breaking point.
Greer Gehler, an emergency room nurse at Providence Alaska Medical Center, is one of many health-care workers who shared their stories with the Daily News. Each described the unsparing challenge of patient care as a vaccine-preventable pandemic returned with a vengeance this past month: long hours, battling burnout in themselves and colleagues even as a public who supported them last year now seems unaware or even angry.
Gehler says she loves her job and her co-workers. But the exhaustion was unrelenting.
She said she was physically attacked last winter, while pregnant, by a patient who thought COVID-19 was a hoax. She has looked in patients’ eyes to see terror as they struggle to breathe, or as they waited hours just to get care. And, like others in her profession, she said she was feeling more martyr than hero as she struggled to treat them all.
Gehler got COVID-19 last winter, while pregnant, and has since recovered. She recently returned to work after taking maternity leave, but is now having to take additional time off due to an ongoing postpartum medical issue.
Gehler spoke to the Daily News recently about her experiences. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
ADN: What was it like to come back to work in the emergency room after some time off, and have COVID really take off again?
Greer Gehler: When I left to have my child and was on maternity leave, we were going back to some kind of normal. We weren’t seeing quite as many COVID patients check into the emergency departments. We were starting to see our normal numbers of people, but then also really sick people — people that had been delaying care for a long time because they were nervous about going to see the doctor or into the emergency department, or being exposed to COVID.
When I got back, the emergency department was overflowing with people in the waiting room, 20 or 30 people deep, with wait times of up to five to six hours. I think most of the nursing staff were hoping that we would be on the other side of this so that we could return to normal — to not being really scared about bringing this home to our families, to getting really sick ourselves. And it just feels like we’re plunging back down into the throes of this pandemic, and it’s exhausting.
We still provide high quality care and compassion for everyone that comes in with a COVID infection, but it’s really difficult to see that almost all of them are unvaccinated. And that this could have been prevented.
ADN: How are you feeling generally about all of this?
Gehler: I think the vast majority of medical staff in our hospitals are very frustrated and becoming angry. I know personally I feel like we’re just being held hostage by folks that choose not to get vaccinated and are still becoming infected and infecting other people.
And, you know, we hear all the excuses, right — we hear, “it’s not been tested enough,” or “I’m young and healthy,” or “I had it a year ago,” or all the fears about the vaccine being unknown. And all of that doesn’t really matter when someone is about to be intubated or is having a heart attack as a result of this infection. All that really goes out the window.
In the emergency room, we know the look in somebody’s eyes when they can’t breathe. When you’re pumping them with as much supplemental oxygen as you can, and it’s still not enough. You never forget that look of terror in their eyes. And then, if they’re still conscious, explaining to them that you’re going to sedate them, you’re going to paralyze them, and you’re going to put a tube down their throat to breathe for them, and that they may never wake up again — hopefully they will, but you don’t know. That’s the look that you’ll never forget. And I think if they could go back and choose a different course of action before that point, I think most people would.
ADN: You were saying a lot of nurses have been leaving. Have there been moments when you considered leaving?
Gehler: I’m not there yet. I love our department, I love my coworkers. I’m not done with it yet, but it did get really hard.
On top of all these critical patients, you also have patients with a lot of mental health issues who get stuck in the ER. You have people with substance abuse issues, and people with behavioral challenges. And what did give me pause a few times was the amount of violence toward our nursing staff.
It’s that on top of this pandemic that we’re dealing with, and sometimes it’s the same patients, right? Like people who don’t believe they actually have COVID, and they think it’s a hoax, even when they’re desperately trying to breathe. I got hit once from someone after I swabbed them for COVID — they thought it was all a hoax.
I think most people, by and large, are kind, and a lot of people’s frustrations come from a place of worry for themselves or their loved ones, and that’s understandable.
It’s this added level of pressure, where we are running ourselves ragged — we are literally bringing people back from the brink of death. And we will get someone’s heartbeat (back) in one room, and we’ll leave that room feeling like the best nurse ever, and the family member in the next room is cussing us out because we forgot to get more ice.
ADN: Back at the beginning of the pandemic, there were messages everywhere about health care workers being heroes — do you still feel that way, that that’s how people view what you do?
Gehler: I think it depends on who you talk to. While it was appreciated, I think a lot of nursing staff didn’t ever feel like heroes. We felt like we were really good at our job, and we took our job very seriously.
We don’t need to be heroes, and we certainly don’t want to be martyrs. And that’s what it’s starting to feel like, or has been feeling like more: like we’re martyrs.
It doesn’t matter if they make a sign, or put a post or something on Facebook about how you’re a nursing hero if the community isn’t following best practices to keep each other safe through vaccination and masking.