Waiting For Superman: CV Stories, 15 December 2020

From the beginning of the beginning of the pandemic to the beginning of the beginning of the end.

Longtime readers of this newsletter will remember, back in March and April, when we ran daily stories from you about how you and yours were handling this terrifying and disorienting new world of the Covid-19 pandemic. As we all settled into the reality of the situation, I stopped running the stories, partly out of exhaustion (yours and mine) and mostly because it grew clear that this was going to go on for a very long time and thus the situation was becoming progressively less novel. They were still incredibly helpful, for me anyway, during an incredibly difficult time. Of all of them, this one was probably my favorite.

This week, the first vaccines were deployed in the United States, signalling the beginning of the end of the Covid-19 pandemic. There is still a long way to go, and much suffering ahead, but I thought, to commemorate this moment and to come full circle, I might bring back the Waiting For Superman CV Stories—one night only.

It is thus my honor and delight to introduce you to Patricia.

Patricia (not her real name) is a reader of this newsletter and, more pertinent to the current conversation, an ICU nurse in Chicago. She has asked me to keep her identity private because of the nature of her job.

Patricia has been on the front lines of the Covid-19 crisis for months now. And, tomorrow, she is becoming one of the first people in this country to receive the vaccine. She was kind enough to let me ask her some questions, probably too many questions, about what she has been going through during the pandemic, about the circumstances surrounding her impending vaccination, and about what she’s learned about her fellow citizens through all this.

I hope you find her answers as insightful and affecting as I did. Thank you, Patricia. And stay safe, everyone. We’re almost there.

So what general area in the country are you two in? Are things particularly bad there?

My husband, my five-year-old and I live in Chicago. Numbers have been bad, but the hospital systems haven’t been completely overwhelmed; there have been beds and ventilators available. However, within the hospital system I work at in the north suburbs of Chicago, the sustained uptick in patient numbers has made keeping those beds adequately staffed very difficult. We are constantly being incentivized to work more, feeling the pressure of an understaffed unit while at work, and battling the physical fatigue of being overworked, or grappling with the guilt of prioritizing our own mental health and physical well being over pitching in extra. Nurses and physicians I know at other hospital systems within the city have described similar experiences. 

What does your job entail? What are the current hours like? How has the situation changed in the hospital?

I am an ICU Resource nurse for a large hospital system. Pre-Covid, I worked two to three 12-hour shifts per week and went to whichever of the three ICUs in our hospital system needed an extra nurse that shift. At the height of the pandemic (in March through early June, and starting at the end of November up to now), our hospital system converted one of its four hospitals to a fully Covid hospital. I’ve been stationed in its ICU for every shift. 

I’ve signed up for three 12-hour shifts a week (7am-7:30pm) and have tried to pick up one extra eight- or 12-hour shift here and there. The work is physical, but it’s also mentally and emotionally draining. Most weeks even three shifts feel like too many. The patients are really sick and have protracted ICU stays. The majority of them die despite weeks of us doing our best to keep them alive.

In the ICU we all wear respirator hoods attached to hoses that snake from our heads to a battery pack around our waists. We wear masks under our hoods, so we’re all just pairs of tired eyes in noisy moon suits. It would be kind of funny, if it wasn’t so sad. Most people don’t know it’s happening. We’ve restricted visitors (aside from extenuating circumstances), so the hospital is literally just patients and staff. When—if—patients leave the ICU and tell everyone about the sad eyes in space suits, nobody will be able to back their story. They’ll probably just chalk it all up to a fever dream. None of this will have ever happened.

Was there a process to have the vaccine become available? 

I’m certain there was a lot of behind the scenes action in the organization I work for, but I was kept abreast of only basic details via emails from administration: “Vaccines are coming, they will not be mandatory, but here are some FAQs to help guide your decision making, contact employee health to speak with Dr. So-and-So for further vaccine related questions,” “we will have vaccines soon and are working on a plan to rapidly distribute to those directly caring for Covid patients first,” “the vaccine will be available next week, you have been identified as an eligible recipient, here are your next steps to schedule an appointment” and so on and so forth. It was all very streamlined and seemingly well-coordinated.

Did you have any concerns about being one of the first people to take it?

Not at all.

What have they told you about efficacy?

We’ve gotten a memo of sorts and have a corporate Covid-19 information page where we can read any and all info available about the vaccines as more information becomes available. Currently we have the same info as the general public: It’s about 90 percent efficacy with either vaccine, we do not know the efficacy after only one dose, we do not know the duration of the efficacy past the duration of the studies that have been conducted.

How long until your next shot after this one?

I actually don’t know which vaccine the organization has, I assume it’s the Pfizer one based on the FDA EUA approval timeline and when we were contacted about vaccine distribution. So 21 days. Twenty-eight if it is Moderna.

Is everyone in your department getting one?

I work directly with patients in a Covid ICU so everyone I work with is in the first tier of vaccine eligible employees within my organization. The vaccine, however, is not mandatory and although most everyone I’ve spoken with has already signed up to be vaccinated, I have talked to one or two people thinking of foregoing the vaccine.

Is there any sort of process set up for you to be able to prove that you've gotten the vaccine?

Since the vaccine is optional, my understanding is there will be nothing tied to our employee files with HR (where our flu vaccines/tb tests/etc. must be linked), but the proof of inoculation will be stored in our electronic medical records. 

Do you get a badge? 

Unclear. I’m hoping there’s at least a sticker though. Or a really cool Band-Aid!

Is there some sort of database?

Aside from the vaccine date getting stored in my personal medical record, I don’t know if there’s any way to track exactly who has had the shot. My assumption is this is being treated like any other medical visit, subject to HIPAA protection. I’m sure if people have long-term side effects and there’s a crazy class action law suit years from now, I’ll just have to access my medical records to jump on in and sue the shit out of people who were doing their best to help the greater good during a global pandemic.

(Which, if my sarcasm doesn’t come through, is something I won’t take part in even if I do sprout a third arm. A third arm might be nice. My clothes may fit weird, but I’ll be able to pat my head, rub my belly, and eat cereal at the same time! Who wouldn’t want that?)

How can people know you've gotten it?

People will know I’ve gotten the vaccine because I will be announcing, with pride, very often and very loudly, that I got it. Which is why I want a sticker. It’s like voting: sure, it’s my civic duty, but I mostly want a sticker and a cool selfie.

Have you learned any lessons about humanity, and your community, being on the front lines during this?

This is a tough one. I am certain I have, though I can’t think of any. Humanity baffles me. For every kind, generous, caring human I’ve met in the ICU, I’ve also met their foil. The unrelenting stress and uncertainty of the pandemic has brought out the best and the worst in all of us, but I’ve been overwhelmed by the sheer number of people doing whatever they can to meet this moment with their best.

Patricia will receive the vaccine tomorrow. I’ll be checking back in with her to see how it went.