From being a hero to being shunned: Stories from the front lines of Pittsburgh’s pandemic

by Teake Zuidema

As the first shipments of the COVID-19 vaccine arrive, the rising number of infections still threaten to overwhelm workers at Pittsburgh-area ICUs and nursing homes. For workers in these settings, the tragedy of the pandemic has been an inescapable part of daily life for months. They’ve seen it all: from being called a hero to being shunned, and from working 16-hour shifts to quarantining at home. Despite hopeful news, they fear the worst is yet to come.

Below are the stories of three women who’ve spent most of 2020 working on the front lines.

At the end of March, Shannon Tully was the first nurse to tend to a COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit at Forbes Hospital in Monroeville. She was also the first to intubate a very sick COVID-19 patient. And then, on April 2, she was the first nurse in the hospital who tested positive for the virus.

“When I found out, I cried hysterically,” Tully said. “I was terrified because at that point there was so much we didn’t know yet about COVID. I didn’t know whether I had exposed family or coworkers.”

It turned out to be a mild case. Tully quarantined for two weeks and then was back in action, working 12-hour shifts in the ICU. Today, she explained, it’s almost normal for a coworker to have a positive COVID-19 test.

Despite the threat of infection, the ICU staff is directing all it’s attention to the patients.

 

“In the beginning of the pandemic, we maybe had three or four COVID patients,” she said in early December. “Around June and July, that second wave, we had maybe eight patients. But now, we’re almost filling up the entire ICU unit with 16 to 18 patients.

“Right from the beginning, we saw that this is a type of nursing none of us have experienced before. You’re gowning up in all this PPE and then when you go into a room, you have to make sure you have all the supplies you need because you cannot quickly go in and out again.”

The biggest difference, however, is the amount of suffering the nurses are witnessing.

“Some patients do well,” Tully said, “while others do terribly, and then on top of that, we’re experiencing more death than ever before. There was a week in October where we lost five patients. It was terrible.

“A lot of our patients come into the hospital terrified because of what they’ve seen and read in the media about COVID. They ask me: ‘Do you think I will survive?’ It’s hard to say to them, ‘Yes, you’re going to beat it,’ because we’ve seen so many people die already.”

With the suffering of patients, comes the pain of their loved ones.

“I have seen more grief than I ever thought possible. Like sitting next to patients as they’re dying, while their families are watching on FaceTime or through a glass at the hospital.”

Seeing so much grief and death and working extra shifts takes an emotional and physical toll on the nurses. Tully talks, and cries, to a therapist on the phone to be able to deal with the situation.

“I think that I and some of my coworkers are experiencing PTSD. I wake up sometimes and I had a nightmare in which I see the faces of patients that have died. Before COVID, you would be able to separate work and life. But now it has encompassed all of our lives. It’s all your family and friends ask you about. You turn on the TV and that’s all that’s on the news.”

Shannon Tully was the first nurse to tend to a COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit at Forbes Hospital in Monroeville. Speaking in early December, Tully said she was mentally preparing herself for the pandemic to get worse. (Photo by Teake Zuidmea/PublicSource)

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From being a hero to being shunned: Stories from the front lines of Pittsburgh’s pandemic

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