PEORIA (HOI) - In March of 2020, life changed for all of us. But for those nurses on the front lines of a pandemic, fears became reality.
"This is the hardest thing I've had to deal with in my entire life. There was fear in the beginning that we were all going to get it. That was just a given," explained Melissa Pokarney, a nursing educator on the COVID floor at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria.
COVID-19 is the most deadly pandemic in the last century. The worst since the Spanish Flu of 1918. 500 million people worldwide got sick then, compared to over 43 million from COVID, so far. The way we're fighting now has similarities to back then. Masks worn in public and healthcare workers forced to protect themselves, donning layer upon layer of protective equipment before caring for patients, just to name a few.
Pokarney explains the job of fighting COVID was a bit of a surprise for them all. "We didn't expect to be the COVID floor. It's one of those things where someone walks in the door and says ok you're going to be the COVID unit."
Nurses in OSF's COVID unit had to switch gears mentally.
Arielle Piper, a nurse for just over a year said, "Just that mindset of taking care of yourself first to be able to take care of these patients. [..] getting over that fear and it's like we still have a job to do we still have patients to take care of."
"Us wearing this PPE is not causing us to get sick at any higher rate than any other unit in the hospital. And that's a fact," explained Pokarney.
In the Emergency Department, the usual fast pace had to slow down, several times nurses rushing into rooms without proper PPE just out of pure habit.
"You don't think about what kind of illness you would get from a patient if they cough on you or something like that. And that all changed. [..] if we all get sick, then who's going to take care of these patients?" asked Jenn Smith an Emergency Department nurse.
Every day these nurses walk into the hospital, seeing people in masks, and getting a temperature check. Just small reminders that facing a pandemic is new for everyone. And for nurses, their usual empathy for patients has taken a backseat to their own safety.
"I found myself running over to other departments and offering emotional support, and allaying fears in people that were scared to death," said Pokarney.
And early on, fears of the worst possible scenario crept in.
"We're going to have to prepare (inaudible crying) we're going to have to prepare our employees to possibly lose co-workers. And thank God we haven't gotten there you know," explained Pokarney full of emotion.
Selfless only begins to describe the attitude these nurses like Arielle Piper bring every day.
"I'm not just protecting myself. I'm protecting my other patients that I'm taking care of not to mention my family and friends. [..] my fiancée and I didn't see each other for the first month. I didn't see my sister for two months. We spent Easter in a parking lot," she explained.
But to Jenn Smith, calling her a "hero" just doesn't fit.
"We didn't sign up to work in a pandemic but we signed up to care for people. And it's hard but it's also our job and its a privilege and a blessing to be able to care for people in these situations," said Smith.
Hero or not, these nurses have had to take on roles they couldn't imagine before COVID came.
"I've been with several patients that had COVID and were dying. And their family could not come and be with them and i would facetime their family so they could say goodbye," explained Smith of those tough phone calls.
But outside of work, they found others were afraid to associate with them, solely based on their job.
Arielle Piper said people would step back from her when they found out she worked on the COVID floor. Smith explained that she couldn't get a doctor's appointment because she worked with COVID patients, because she was always coming into contact and that was a first screening question. She said she felt like she was treated as if she had COVID.
Yet still, the one thing they all say they'll remember about this fight against COVID-19, the love and support they've received.
"It was very very encouraging to see the way the community rallied around us. There was a local coffee shop that brought in coffee for us everyday"
As hundreds of COVID patients come in and out of hospital care, nearly 150 dying here in the tri-county region, these nurses keep coming back.
"When I start feeling like it's hard for me to get out of bed in the morning, I come into work and people are still cheerful. They're still laughing with each other. There's still such comradery on the floor. That lifts my spirit," explained Pokarney with a smile through her mask.
This group of nurses stressed the importance of having a sense of humor. Their two greatest stress relievers are tears and laughter, and - they told me - if you can pick one, choose laughter.