May 5, 2020

‘We will do whatever it takes to protect our patients’

Caring for critically ill newborns in neonatal intensive care unit during COVID, UCalgary nursing instructor urges us all to keep up social distancing

To those of you who are doing everything you can to stay home and only leaving your house if it is absolutely necessary, thank you. Truly.

To those of you who are not, who are still seeing friends and family, who are not social distancing, who are not taking this seriously, I want to say: This isn’t a joke. This is so very real.

Even though my NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) team and I are not working directly with COVID patients, we are still impacted by all of this in a big way. We are the ones who are now wearing masks for 12 hours straight until our ears and nose hurt. We are the ones sacrificing seeing anyone outside of work just so we can protect our little immune-compromised babies. We are scared all the time that we could bring this virus into our little NICU home. But we will do whatever it takes to protect our patients.

Along with all other health-care workers working directly in close proximity to each other and our patients, we are required to wear masks for our entire shift in order to protect others and reduce the spread of this virus. We do not risk seeing any of our friends or family (unless we already live with them, of course) so that there is no chance of unexpectedly bringing the virus into the hospital to the parents or the babies we work with. Many of us still have to leave our house for food or other items to live, so we are constantly exercising every little bit of hand hygiene and careful navigation outside of our home in order to avoid catching this virus.

The babies that we work with are often very immunocompromised and unwell, where even so much as bringing in bacteria from a common cold could be extremely detrimental to them. That’s why we are more scared and careful than ever to protect these fragile little lungs of the babies we work with.

We are the ones who watch these helpless parents who have to come in alone (only one parent at a time) as they cry over their baby, who are also scared to make them more sick than they already are.

We are the ones filling out redeployment surveys, meaning there is a chance we will have to be pulled to the frontlines in a place we are not trained nor comfortable with, simply because this pandemic has gotten out of control. Alberta Health Services is surveying nurses in advance to determine experience and background of those who they might move in the event they require extra staff to care for COVID patients in the adult ICU settings.

With the current anticipated spike in hospitalizations (and an even higher expected number of hospitalized patients if people do not take this pandemic seriously and do not help by staying home), the health-care system will have to move nurses to the adult ICU to take care of the increasing numbers of patients.

Premature baby

Photo by Hush Naidoo on Unsplash

My specialty is working with critically ill newborns. If I were redeployed, I would have to learn how to work with adult ICU patients in a short period of time, which is completely out of my comfort zone. I would anticipate that the stress and responsibility of having to care for patients outside of my expertise, especially with the added fear of the pandemic itself, would be, in the simplest terms, traumatic. I do not wish this on myself or any of my colleagues.

Please do not let this get more out of control than it already is. I ask you to do your part. Please, please stay home. I know you’re bored; I know you’re lonely (and trust me, I miss my mom, too) but this will be over sooner if you help by isolating yourself physically during this time.

Let’s help each other get through this as quickly as possible.

Kristen Toporowsky currently works as a part-time clinical nursing instructor at the University of Calgary. She will be transitioning to full-time next year. She has a background working in labour and delivery but spent most of her nursing career in the neonatal ICU at the Alberta Children’s Hospital. She also recently completed her Master’s in Nursing with a teaching focus at the end of 2019.