Alabama nurse in Boston COVID-19 unit: “I hope Huntsville never sees what I see here”

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Liz Adams drove her Honda CR-V to Huntsville from West Virginia on March 15, feeling unsettled. Her one and a half year job as a travel nurse had just ended and she was still mourning the loss of her father, who died less than a year earlier in August 2019. Nothing looked right.

Across the country, things were also becoming unstable. The day after arriving home, Alabama closed its schools and many businesses as the COVID-19 outbreak reached crisis proportions in major cities in the northeast and northwest.

Adams, who had spent nearly a decade as a nurse at Huntsville Hospital, came to what seemed like an obvious conclusion.

“I thought, I am not working at the moment, I have been an intensive care nurse for 9 years; I’m the perfect person to go and help, ”she said.

“It was almost like a call, because I literally couldn’t be in a more perfect situation.”

She tried not to overthink the risk, she said, calling the travel nursing company. She signed a contract a few days later and packed her bags for the 1,100 mile trip to Boston.

“Normally I would have panicked completely,” she said. “But since everything that happened with my father, I’m lost. It actually felt right, like something that mattered. I had no idea what kind of experience it was going to be.

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Adams has spent the past few weeks working in a COVID-19 intensive care unit at Massachusetts General Hospital. Known locally as Mass General, it is the largest teaching hospital at Harvard Medical School in Boston and one of the oldest hospitals in the United States.

Because her unit takes care of some of the sickest patients, she said, most of those who come to her unit do not survive. Those who do are on a ventilator for weeks and require major procedures like tracheostomies and feeding tubes.

“They don’t even look like the same person,” she said. “Once COVID gets to this point it’s absolutely one of the most horrible things, what it does to the body. I can’t think of any other kind of illness that looks like what COVID is doing. “

Her unit was once a burn care unit, she said, until it was transformed to exclusively treat the hospital’s sickest COVID patients. Adams is one of the many travel nurses there, she said. All of the patients in his unit are on ventilators.

She was originally hired to work four weeks, but her contract was extended for six weeks. Earlier in its stay, the hospital struggled to cope with a shortage of ventilators and protective equipment as Massachusetts health officials issued devastating guidelines on how to choose which patients to receive. fans.

This week, there are more than 300 COVID-19 patients in Mass General, she said, and more than 100 in intensive care.

“It’s actually better than before,” she said. “Our curve is starting to flatten out here.”

For comparison, Birmingham UAB Hospital has around 40 COVID-19 patients this week, with a smaller fraction on ventilators.

Most people infected with the coronavirus will never need to be hospitalized. But that can make it difficult to understand the severity of the disease, Adams said.

“Personally, I have a lot of trouble when people compare it to the flu,” she said. “The reason the two are compared is that they cause pneumonia and that puts patients in acute respiratory distress syndrome, which is stiffening of the lungs. Very bad and very difficult to manage.

“But there are so many other things going on with COVID on top of that. Once they’re in this state, it’s just awful. I don’t know any other word for it. It is devastating for the body.

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Adams works four grueling 12-hour shifts each week, alternating between work days and nights.

She looks after one or two patients per shift, which includes managing multiple medications and intravenous infusions, maintaining the patient’s personal hygiene, adjusting ventilator settings, and turning patients. in their bed.

“There is really nothing normal about my day,” she said. “It’s just about dealing with the chaos. Last night at work was perhaps my worst night, in terms of my mental health level. I don’t think any of us nurses sat all night.

One of the most difficult parts of her job, she said, has been helping families speak on loudspeakers or via Zoom calls to loved ones who are on ventilators and are unaware.

“Hearing family members (telling a loved one) that they are sorry for something they said they regretted or didn’t get along, hearing these things and being a part of it is difficult “she said. “They just want the chance to say it because they know they probably won’t have a better opportunity.”

But she has also seen patients finally come out of ventilators and leave their unit for a less intensive step-down unit.

After they wake up, she said, they sometimes ask what happened.

“You tell them they’ve been on a ventilator for a month and a half,” she said, “and it’s difficult because they realize they’ve missed a month and a half of their lives. “

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Adams lives in a hotel room in downtown Boston, near the Charles River. Often, she is so tired that when she returns to her room, she prepares her things for the next day and then goes to bed.

Hotel staff do not clean travel nurses’ rooms for fear of infection, she said. When they need to vacuum the room, staff leave a vacuum cleaner at their door.

But when she has a day off, she enjoys walking around downtown Boston. She enjoyed visiting sites like Boston Common and Fenway Park with some of her nursing colleagues.

She even found in Boston the same kind of Southern hospitality that she used to find in Alabama. Her unit at the hospital looks like a big family, she said. One of his nursing colleagues has a fiancée who cooks meals for them once a day.

“I don’t know how to express how kind and warm the people of Boston have been,” she said. “It was instant acceptance. It was amazing. “

Liz Adams is an intensive care nurse from Huntsville who is currently working in a COVID-19 unit in Boston. (Submitted)

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Prior to arriving in Boston, Adams admits she didn’t really understand just how devastating the coronavirus epidemic had become.

“I was skeptical about some things, but I learned very quickly that this is serious and that it is real,” she said.

Boston alone has more than 9,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, more than the state of Alabama as a whole, which had around 7,000 as of Thursday. It can be difficult for people in a state with fewer cases to understand the enormity of the problem.

“My concern for Alabama, from what I see people posting on Facebook, is the lack of awareness and not taking something like this seriously,” she said. “That’s what scares me more than the virus.”

She chronicled her experiences on Facebook and was interviewed for a recent Boston Globe article.

“I want people to know that I’m not trying to be dramatic or overdo things,” she said. “I want to give out enough information for people to understand that these things are true and real.”

But as she saw some skepticism from acquaintances back home, she also received tangible support.

A northern Alabama sewing group on Facebook saw one of her posts and sent her 280 homemade surgical caps, so she could share with her fellow nurses. On Wednesday, she received a shipment of 70 masks from another group in Alabama.

“The people of Alabama have been very generous in showing their support and (the Boston staff) can feel it here,” she said. “It had a huge impact. They kept thanking me, and I was like, it wasn’t me, I was just wearing in the box.

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Adams’ last day at General Mass is May 16. After that, she will pack her bags and go home.

Adams grew up in Southeast Huntsville and went on to graduate from high school at Lee High. She can’t wait to see friends, go to church, eat some Baumhower wings and, she hopes, attend a Trash Pandas game. Alabama has a “Safer Home” order until May 15 that could put some of its plans on hold.

She is also ready to return to work at the Huntsville Hospital with a renewed sense of purpose.

“I feel like coming here (to Boston) brought me back to life,” she said. “I was a little empty, since my father; I’ve never had to cry before, it’s no fun. But it all changed me. I feel like I’m serving a purpose here, and it gave me the opportunity, when I come home, to better serve our community.

She is worried about a potential ‘second wave’ of COVID-19 cases in the fall, as some experts, including those at UAB, have predicted.

“I hope Huntsville never sees what I see here,” she said. “Never. But I think there is a potential that we haven’t overcome the worst. I hate to even think about it, but we have to be prepared. And I want to be able to serve my community in that regard.

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