Spectrum Health West Michigan
Compassion, Teamwork and Flexibility
Critical care nurses discuss their careers during COVID-19 pandemic
May 11, 2020
The nurses in Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital’s Critical Care Unit are caring for patients who are critically ill with COVID-19. Nurse manager Patti DeLine and RN Melissa Jones took a few minutes to answer questions about their careers in nursing and what their days are like during this global pandemic.
Why did you decide to become a nurse?
Melissa: Nursing is my second career; several years ago my brother passed away as a result of injuries sustained from a motorcycle accident. I remember the nurses so vividly during that time, it’s like they are standing in front of me now. They never left his side. They were patient and kind with me and my parents, answering all of our questions and, most importantly, being forthright and honest with their information. They made such an impact on me during that time, I knew the only way to honor his memory was to provide that same consideration and care to other families.
Patti: I was going to be a math teacher, but halfway through my first year of community college I started thinking about teaching the same content over and over and over. Math doesn’t change. I wanted a job where things change. An instructor suggested nursing school. I didn’t even know what a nurse did. There were no nurses in my family. I did some job shadowing and then went on to get a degree in nursing. Nursing was not a life-long aspiration of mine, but all of the pieces fell into place and it’s a perfect fit.
Your work in the critical care unit entails caring for people who are seriously ill with COVID-19, including those who are relying on ventilators to keep them alive. What’s that like?
Patti: As I nurse manager, my job is to take care of the nurses. I saw a lot of tears that first week. They were worried about treating the disease as well as bringing the disease home and the shortages of PPE. But we’ve gotten into a pretty good groove with treatment plans and PPE and the “wins” keep us going on the difficult days.
Melissa: Just like everyone else, we’ve been learning on the fly. This is different than anything we have ever experienced. We have amped up our critical thinking skills in terms of new interventions and communication. There’s no question that we are experiencing a lot of stress. Patients can decompensate very fast. We’ve learned to ask for help when we need it.
Visitor restrictions mean patients can’t spend time with loved ones. That seems lonely – and scary. How has this affected your job?
Melissa: Because families are not allowed to visit, communicating with them is difficult. We have to make connections over video. The families are having to make life or death decisions in this way because they are not able to be here.
Are you worried about your own health? What about your family?
Patti: My husband has been furloughed so he is home with our sons, who are 10 and 14. I am the only one who regularly leaves the house. I have a process of making sure I am safe. It starts when one of my sons greets me at the door and sprays my shoes with a can of Lysol. I was in nursing school on 9/11. We were scared. This reminds me a lot of that, although it’s dragging on. This isn’t a fight that will be over this month or next month. We need to be resilient and still be compassionate.
Melissa: When the virus came to Michigan my husband started to freak out. But actually, I’m less anxious to come to work than I am to be out in the public. At work, I am prepared and I know the precautions I need to take. Outside out of the hospital, I don’t know who has it. Some of my anxiety is caused by the inaccurate information I see on social media, when people say they don’t understand the quarantine. They don’t see the sickness we see. If they did, they would understand. I get that it’s frustrating. We are all frustrated. But I don’t want you to end up in the hospital.
What inspires you?
Melissa: We’ve had patients on life support for almost two weeks and they have turned things around and recovered. We have a “hallway party” for them as they move to another part of the hospital.
Patti: I have the support of an entire organization behind me. And the support from the community has been great, including donations of food and PPE. To have so many recognize us for the work we do is pretty amazing.
People tend to rally around each other in times of crisis. What does that look like among the nursing teams?
Patti: Our nursing teams have been supporting each other emotionally and mentally, making sure everyone gets a break because it can be overwhelming. Even in “normal” times, nursing can take an emotional toll on you. A lot of times it’s a shoulder to cry on, people just want to let it out. I’ve heard about lots of late-night phone calls. We also have a couple of jokesters around to lighten the mood. And one nurse baked 216 cupcakes last week and brought them in for us.
Melissa: I feel the nursing staff has really stepped up in terms of supporting each other when the stress and anxiety are high. We have also taken time to purposefully include some laughter and lighthearted banter to lighten the mood when we get overwhelmed. When this medical ICU unit became the main COVID unit, we needed the support of the other units around us through increased staff and training. The trainees were eager to learn, welcomed the challenge and were a great addition to our team.
Your role and that of other health professionals certainly has been elevated over the last several weeks. What sort of lessons do you take away from all this?
Patti: Any time there is a medical emergency, whether a pandemic or a mass shooting, society and the media tend to highlight the people who are saving lives. That’s wonderful, we appreciate it. But at the end of the day, nurses are pretty humble. We do this job when it’s in the news and it’s the thing to do, and we do this job when it’s not. We are called to do it and we have a lot of pride in the work we do, COVID or non-COVID.
Melissa: I believe we are doing the same things we did before: providing the best possible health care for patients in crisis. Prior to this pandemic, I feel the public didn’t have a great understanding of the risks nurses encounter daily with patients with infectious disease. When people started to hear stories and see social media posts about it, they wanted to make us front line “heroes.” We all appreciate the support and consideration, and yes, we are on the front line, but we aren’t heroes. We will continue to do what we have always done.
What advice would you offer to someone who is thinking about a career in health care?
Melissa: Shadow health care workers in the field you would like to pursue. Think about how you handle high-stress situations. Are you able to make in-the-moment decisions? Are you able to ask for help? Because health care is stressful, it can be intense. And it’s a team environment. You have to be confident enough in your skills and knowledge to know when you can deal with complicated matters on your own and when you need to ask others for help. It could literally be a matter of life and death.
Patti: Think about whether you like change. Everything changes – a lot. You need a real passion for people, an open mind, and you need to be willing to be uncomfortable. You will be uncomfortable. It’s not always easy and that’s okay. Nursing is really rewarding. It’s amazingly rewarding.
Spectrum Health is a not-for-profit health system that provides care and coverage, comprising 31,000+ team members, 14 hospitals (including Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital), a robust network of care facilities, teams of nationally recognized doctors and providers, and the nation’s third-largest provider-sponsored health plan, Priority Health, currently serving over 1 million members across the state of Michigan. People are at the heart of everything we do. Locally governed and headquartered in Grand Rapids, Michigan, we are focused on our mission: to improve health, inspire hope and save lives. Spectrum Health has a legacy of strong community partnerships, philanthropy and transparency. Through experience, innovation and collaboration, we are reimagining a better, more equitable model of health and wellness.