HUNTINGTON — Few professions have been thrust into the spotlight as abruptly as nurses.
The start of the pandemic was marked by scenes of New Yorkers cheering from their windows and balconies as nurses walked to work.
Essential workers during the beginning unknown stages of the pandemic were viewed as brave and heroic. Now they receive threats over the phone just for doing their job.
Leigh Allen, a registered nurse and director of Medical Surgeries Services at St. Mary’s Medical Center, explained the dynamic of nurses taking care of COVID-19 patients.
“You’d have family members (of COVID-19 patients) call and threaten nurses … It’s hard enough dealing with the crisis and taking care of sick people, taking care of yourself and worrying if you’re going to take it home to your family. To have people calling and harassing you for something you have no control over when you’re just doing your best — it was mentally straining for a lot of nurses,” Allen said.
Allen said she had never seen her profession as politically charged as it was over the pandemic. This, combined with the stress and logistics of taking care of COVID-19 patients, was too much for some to handle.
Many nurses found they could work in telehealth from home or that they could survive on only one income and stopped working completely.
Nearly 1 in 5 nurses have left the health care industry in the past two years, largely due to pandemic-related burnout or insufficient pay. Just last fall, 900 union workers in the service and maintenance units at Cabell Huntington Hospital went on a month-long strike over wages and health care premiums.
This trend leaves hospitals understaffed in the best of times and overwhelmed when the next wave of COVID-19 patients comes through the doors.
“We have seen nurses who have left the profession,” said Andrea Criss, director of nursing in Cabell Huntington Hospital’s Medical-Surgical Center.
“I know at St. Mary’s we did have several nurses that went off on furlough and just never came back,” Allen said.
Allen said she didn’t feel like she had the chance to feel burnout, and that the responsibilities at hand overwhelmed how she might have been feeling personally on any given day.
“I don’t really think I felt the option to leave,” Allen said.
Allen doesn’t usually tend to the bedside in her current position, but regularly steps in when help is needed.
The health care industry hasn’t been immune to other pandemic-related quirks like online learning.
Criss said the challenges of virtually based learning impacted the industry, with nurses sometimes being unprepared and needing training.
“We as a hospital system have been doing a lot of reteaching and live orientation,” Criss said.
Despite the challenges, the call of responsibility hasn’t gone unanswered.
“Nurses really did step up, and they saw the need was there to provide care to patients and to be their advocate … Nurses truly want to be that patient advocate, and we go to great lengths to make sure the patient gets the care they deserve,” Criss said.
Allen said nurses might appreciate being called a hero, but they would rather be considered just another human being.
“We’re just human, and so many nurses did extraordinary things, but underneath it all, they are just ordinary people and it’s been physically and emotionally exhausting. They were just doing the best they could with the resources and knowledge they had,” Allen said.