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From job loss, to balancing work from home to the isolation of following stay-at-home orders, coronavirus has changed our everyday lives. WUSF is giving you a voice to share those experiences.

A hospice nurse reflects on two years of COVID and what helps her get by

Hospice nurse Darleen Gruver says she spends a lot of time on a horse farm she runs with her friend to blow off steam after hard days treating COVID-19 patients. She says she is used to seeing people die, but the pandemic made things harder.
Jean White
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Hospice nurse Darleen Gruver says she spends a lot of time on a horse farm she runs with her friend to blow off steam after hard days treating COVID-19 patients. She says she is used to seeing people die, but the pandemic made things harder.

Brooksville resident Darleen Gruver says she had to stop counting how many COVID patients she sent to the morgue. She says things have improved, but nursing shortages are still causing problems.

It's been more than two years since Florida reported its first coronavirus cases. While the pandemic has changed all of our lives, health workers have been and continue to be some of the most affected.

Today we hear from Darleen Gruver. She lives in Brooksville and works as a hospice nurse in Pasco County.

Gruver said she has been a nurse for more than three decades and provided end of life care for 17 years, so she has seen a lot of people die. But she said COVID-19 made things worse:

Most of our patients stay with us for months, but with COVID, they die fast. They would come on service and die in less than 24 hours or just a couple of days. You have a lot less time to get their symptoms under control and educate the family.

It’s hard when I'm racking up the numbers in my brain thinking, “Oh my God, how many people have I sent to the morgue with COVID?” And it's a scary number — me, personally, and I only work two-and-a-half days a week.

I kept track for a little while. And I think when I got up to 40, I just stopped counting on my own. I just didn't want to know anymore. And that was the first year. That was 2020.

You know, a lot of times when people are in end of life, they're really not aware and they go into a coma-type state. And they may stay that way for several days. A lot of these people were awake and alert. And it's a horrible, horrible death, there's wheezing and gurgling and gasping and they can't breathe.

I mean watching a father cry and tell you that he loves his children when he knows he's fixing to die that night, that takes a big toll on you.

We're used to the elderly dementia patient, or the elderly heart patient when they're in their 80’s or 90’s. And we help them transition, keep them comfortable when they go to end of life.

When you're 40-something years-old, and you're dying because of a virus that could have been prevented, and we could have done more to stop the spread of this virus. We could have made masks – and I know that’s a trigger – mask mandates. People say it doesn't stop it, but it does. It greatly decreases the risk of getting it.

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There are families that still get angry at you because we still wear a mask. Whenever we go to anybody's house, doesn't matter if it's COVID or not. You have families, occasionally they get angry at you. And you have to figure out what they're really angry about. They may be yelling at you, but they're really not angry at you, they're angry at this disease or angry at the situation.

And, you know, it's a rewarding job in that they look at you and say, you know, what do I do? We have the answers. Let me get you the right equipment, let me get you the right medication. Let me hold your hand while this happens. You know, death is a very personal thing. And they're allowing a complete stranger to come in and help them. So you can't take it personally.

Being able to watch that turn around into somebody going, “Thank you so much,” you know, and then they'll say, “I'm so sorry I acted that way,” and you just go, “It’s okay, it’s okay.”

I worked a lot of overtime in the first part, but over the last six months or so I think I've stopped doing that. Because it was just constant bombardment of COVID.

And I’ve hugged a lot of ponies, you know we (she and her friend) run a horse farm. And they (the horses) don’t know anything about a pandemic.

When we have to go in full PPE to a patient’s home, you have to drive there, get out of the car, you have to dress out in their driveway in a gown and mask and bonnet and shoe covers. You know that’s a lot. So not working as much, kind of trying to turn it off a little bit and spending more time out here has helped.

But the nursing shortage has become very critical.

We have teams that usually run 20 to 22 staff members that are down to six. There's not enough nurses to take care of the patients that we have, they just can't do it anymore. It's just too much. And some of them are younger and they just don't have to put up with that. They can go take a contract and make three times as much money.

I get emails all the time for critical care contracts where they pay you, 20, 30 $40,000 sign on bonuses. There's that temptation, but at this point in my life, I'm 60, and I don't want to change jobs. I don't want to give up what I have here.

I love what I do and I want to figure out a way to make it better for the patients. Hospice is very important to me. I want to be able to help these people and it's very frustrating, it saddens me deeply when they're not getting the care that they need because we just don't have the staff. But I just go and do what I can.

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Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.