I'm Not a Health Care Professional, but I'm Working in a Hospital During the Pandemic

At 7:45 a.m. on January 10, I was fortunate enough to receive the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. I remember walking out of the hospital that morning feeling lighter, ignoring the frigid air that bit at any skin I had exposed. And I remember watching two women in scrubs, who had also just been vaccinated, hug each other in the parking lot. They stood there for a while just crying in a silent embrace. Too soon for close contact, maybe, but I sat in my car and teared up a little, too. 

It was a huge relief.

I work overnight shifts in the emergency department of my local hospital where I serve as the patient registrar, switchboard operator, and secretary. From my behind-the-scenes position, I have been able to observe a lot, especially during COVID-19. Health care professionals truly are superheroes, each and every one of them. I cannot emphasize this enough. These individuals have continued to bring their resilience and compassion with them each day in spite of the odds that are working against them. 

Vladimir Fedotov via Unsplash

Before I reflect on my own experience, I want to clarify that I am not trying to take any credit away from these professionals. Again, they deserve all the praise in the world. I am simply looking to shed light on the unique set of challenges that I have encountered through my own position. 

There was a night towards the end of January that will be with me for a while. It was a Saturday, sometime around 4 a.m. I was sitting in my little office reading the latest issue of The New Yorker by the light of five computer monitors and an overhead fixture when an ambulance arrived, periodically beeping as it backed in. 

This in itself wasn’t new. 

When an ambulance arrives, I wait for a nurse to add the patient into our system before I proceed to register them. So I pushed my magazine to the side and stared at my monitor, waiting. 

And waiting. 

I heard the rustle of nurses and doctors putting on additional equipment, of urgent voices asserting specific directions. Soon, an EMT that brought the patient here came back into my office and asked if I had a face sheet with his information. I looked at my screen.

There was still no name on the board, so I had nothing to give him. 

I told him that I would fax it over when I had it. He sighed and walked out, thanking me only out of habit. He was tired and I understood. 

Then it was, “call a code blue!” from a screaming voice down the hall.

And so I did, my stomach twisting. I had only had to call codes a few times before, so the process still didn’t come naturally. Especially not at this hour. 

After hearing my voice echo on the overhead speaker, I paged the necessary recipients in a painful silence. The waiting room was dark, empty. A television on the opposite wall played reruns of old Disney channel shows. I didn’t realize how frequently the laugh track was used, the cheap cheer jabbing at my gut time and time again, mocking my misery. 

Here’s the thing about the laugh track: it didn’t care who the audience was or if the joke was even funny. It just kept playing. In some kind of warped way, the coronavirus was also like this. Calculated. Constant. Insensitive to the greater context in which it was placed.  

I tried to occupy my mind with other thoughts, but it was stuck on the nameless patient who wasn’t registered, the patient in respiratory arrest. There was nothing I could do except wait. 

When a nurse bursted into my office a few minutes after I called the code, he told me that the patient had expired. I was instructed to call the department that had brought him in to gather the missing information and then call the medical examiner. 

And so I did, suppressing my emotions and successfully retrieving the necessary details. 

To the medical examiner, I relayed the outline of a person who I would never get the chance to know. I told him the man’s name. His birthday. His address. I knew these surface level details, but I didn’t know him. I never even saw what he looked like. But now I’d never be able to. 

This was the first time that someone on my shift had passed away from COVID-19. 

I wonder if the man knew that he had the virus, that he would breathe his last breaths in a local hospital surrounded by faces covered with so much gear that you could hardly identify them as human. 

I wonder if he knew his fate when he was watching early morning cartoons with his son this past weekend or bringing flowers home for his wife on a random Tuesday just because. 

I wonder if he hugged his loved ones closer that day or if it had been months since he hugged anyone at all.

Maybe he didn’t have a spouse or children. Maybe he never even did any of those things.

If he did have a family, I suspected that they would be calling the hospital soon. I’ve received those calls before, voices choked up with tears asking if we had a patient in our facility by a certain name. I’d calmly transfer them to the nurse's station, hear the phone ring down the hall, and know that this conversation would probably haunt the mind of the caller for days and weeks and years to come. 

When I think about the emptiness that I felt that night into the following morning, I think back to the comfort that I found after being vaccinated. That day, I was able to spot a spec of hope, distant as it was, that let me know that it wouldn’t be like this forever. My coworkers were vaccinated and soon other people would be, too. 

Again, the spec is still pretty far away. But I can see it now. It is coming closer, and when it gets close enough, I will bring it in close and hold on tight. 

It will be a huge relief. 

COVID Vaccine Photo by Daniel Schludi from Unsplash