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A young nurse reflects on caring for COVID patients in a deadly pandemic

 Alicia Sgroi
Kerry Sheridan
Alicia Sgroi became a nurse just as the coronavirus pandemic began in early 2020.

After losing two patients, one after another, Alicia Sgroi wrote an essay about the experience in the American Journal of Nursing. Her essay is titled "What a Time to Become a Nurse."

Alicia Sgroi graduated from the University of South Florida with her bachelor's degree in nursing at the end of 2019, just as reports were beginning to emerge of a new virus in Wuhan, China.

She began caring for COVID-19 patients just months later. Today, she shares her experience of being a young nurse, holding the hands of dying patients, and breaking the news to their loved ones:

I started working in the hospital when I was 20 years old (as a certified nursing assistant). I'm 25 now.

In June is when we started being the COVID unit at my hospital. And we actually still are to this day. So I've seen all the ups and downs of it for the past year and a half.

It's been very scary at times. And it is, to a certain extent, still unpredictable in the way of some people are fine, and they're asymptomatic. And, you know, they have an easy time going. But for other people, they struggle, and it's a long journey.

A lot of patients that come in here sick, can't wait to get the vaccine after they're sick. Because they realize the impact that it can have on everybody. And I've had a couple of patients to their family members after they've gotten sick. They tell me like, 'Oh, my mom is getting vaccinated right now.'

You learn about death in nursing school. And I knew that it is something that I was going to have to face and I think what was most — not shocking, but the most impactful for me with these patients is that they were alone.

I felt like I barely knew this person and I'm the last person in this world that's going to be there by their side as they take their last breath. And to me I feel like that's not something you can really prepare a person for.

I had an older man pass away with me one day, and then the next day, when I came back to work, I had an older woman also pass away.

Speaking to their families afterwards is also something that I wasn't prepared for. It's not an easy conversation to have and it's hard not to shed a tear yourself when these things happen because it was someone's brother, it was someone's husband, it was someone's friend.

And sometimes it's hard when you know that things aren't looking good (for the patient). And they're looking at you like, 'Am I going to be okay? Am I going to die? Is this going to happen?' It makes you like pause for a minute and think. What do you what do you say to a person? In a moment like that? What do you say to them when they're looking up at you and saying that?

It's just something that — not that I wish everybody could experience it — but it's something that I wish people thought about, like people who think people who don't think COVID is real, or the patients aren't that sick. It's situations like that, that I think about a lot.

In the beginning, it was hard for me to find the right words to say, because you never want to give a patient false hope. Or to say like, yeah, everything is going to be fine when it's not.

But I think what I've realized is focusing on what's at hand and telling them this is what we're going to do. We're going to put you on an oxygen mask. We're going to do this, we're going to do that. I'm going to call the doctor... And just letting them know and verbalizing everything that you're doing creates a sense of ease, I think, for them.

Even though I've only been a nurse for two years, it's still such a short period of time, I have learned so many things. I don't have that little panic in the back of my head anymore. You know, I'm confident in what I'm doing. I walk into the room, I'm able to calm the patients down. And I think just being calm is -- because if you're panicked, the patient's going to be panicked.

There have been times where I've come home, and I felt extremely defeated. And I've thought like, maybe I need to change. But I feel like right now where I'm at, is where I'm supposed to be.

Copyright 2022 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Kerry Sheridan is a reporter and co-host of All Things Considered at WUSF Public Media.