Journey to the Side of the Bed (A COVID-19 Story)
A Nurse's story of a COVID-19 patient and her extraordinary strength and resilience.
She’s only 38 years old; younger than me. She looks lifeless in bed as she’s wheeled in from the ICU. Skimming her chart, I doubt she’s ready for the transfer. Oh boy, is she about to surprise me.
She was in the ICU, intubated and sedated for several days as COVID-19 took over her body. Last night, in a delirium, she pulled out the breathing tube. She’s breathing well on her own, but her vocal cords are traumatized. She can’t swallow and can only manage a whisper. Her weak hand holds a suction tube. When I try to wake her up she starts coughing. She feebly lifts the tube with her restrained hand and suctions the phlegm she can’t swallow. I watch it travel through the tubing to the canister on the wall. The color is reassuring.
I hear her whisper, “water.”
She has an NPO order: nothing by mouth. “No,” I say, “I can’t give you water because you can’t swallow.”
“Please.” Her eyes meet mine, welling with desperation and thirst.
“I can’t. It will go to your lungs and make you sicker. And I’m here to help you get better.”
Her eyelids droop as she nods her understanding. I feel that familiar struggle, wanting to provide immediate comfort but knowing it can cause long term harm.
I settle her in her new room and do my nursing duties. I am dripping sweat and struggling to modulate my breathing inside the PPE I wear. The sweat between my arms and the plastic isolation gown turns to a sticky froth as I work. The face shield strapped on my head keeps sliding down, obstructing my view. When my tasks are complete, I see she has fallen asleep and I leave her to rest. I can't describe the relief I feel at exiting the room and peeling off the PPE. I bootleg three deep breaths before covering my face again with a surgical mask.
As I manage my other patients, I frequently peek through her window to see if she’s still asleep. An hour later, I find her awake and waving at me. I gear up, double-check my PPE, ensure my mask is sealed, and enter her room.
“I heard a bell and clapping. What happened?” she whispers.
“Someone went home. That’s how we celebrate.”
“I want to go home too.”
“You will go home. We’ve sent lots of people home today. I’ve discharged two.”
She nods. “Can I call my husband?”
Her mobile phone is on the bedside table. I hold it up for her as she slowly taps out her code and calls him. When he appears on the screen he starts talking to her, knowing her voice is gone. He speaks Spanish so I am not privy to what he says. Then a young boy appears on the screen and talks to her. She looks at me with pride and whispers “It’s my son’s birthday.” Tears stream down her cheeks, our mama hearts breaking together. She closes her eyes and dozes to their comforting voices. I long to know more about her and her family but realize this isn’t the time. I want to remove the wrist restraints but decide she’s not been awake long enough for me to deem it safe.
When her call is finished, she looks at me and says “Help me get up.”
“I don’t think you can get up. You’re too weak” I say, taking her hand.
Her eyes are fully open for the first time and plead with me, tears streaming down her cheeks.
“Please, I have to get up so I can go home.” The determination on her face changes my mind.
I begin assessing her strengths rather than her weaknesses. I start developing a plan.
“Okay. We are going to get you up.”
I call the nurses station and ask for someone to come in and help me. I begin preparing her for the journey to the side of the bed. I release the soft restraints that kept her safe when she was delirious. From her lower legs, I remove the compression sleeves, meant to prevent blood clots. I rearrange the monitoring wires, IV tubes, and catheter bag so nothing gets dislodged when she moves. I keep the suction tube where she can reach in case she starts to cough and choke.
Another nurse enters the room and I explain that we are going to sit her up at the side of the bed. We both know how difficult it will be for her and the many ways it could go wrong. We inherently trust each other even though we just met, and know we can get her there.
We support her feeble body through a series of small shifts and adjustments until she is sitting up at the side of the bed while managing the tubes and wires. Her feet touch the floor as she holds on to us. She struggles to catch her breath, her body searching for equilibrium as she's upright for the first time in weeks. I place a walker in front of her and she grips it for support. Maintaining her grip, she slowly straightens her arms then her back as we release our hold and she holds herself up. She looks up at me and smiles.
“I’ll stand up now.”
My colleague and I instantly meet eyes, an entire risk and reward conversation passing between us without speaking. We both nod.
“Okay, let’s do it.”
She adjusts her grip and tries to rise but doesn’t get far. She shakes her head while taking deep breaths and strengthening her resolve. We brace her under her arms and behind her back, assuring her that she can do this and we are here to support her.
We all look at each other and simultaneously count down from three. She slowly rises to stand, at the center of our human apparatus. She straightens her back, steels her gaze straight forward, and begins counting slowly as tears run down her face.
It’s the greatest display of human fortitude I’ve ever witnessed. I struggle to maintain my composure while lending physical and emotional support.
With a huge grin on her face, she returns to sitting and slumps with fatigue. We support her body as we shift her back to lying down.
“Thank you" she murmurs, giving in to exhaustion.
When I next enter her room she holds up three fingers and whispers “That’s three. Three people have gone home.” She points at her own chest. “I am going home too.”
“Yes, you are. I wasn’t so sure a few hours ago, but now I know you are.”
A week later, the bell rings and the staff cheer as I wheel out of the unit. We both shed tears as we travel the long hall to the main entrance.
As I wheel her through the front door, her husband sees her. It's not joy on his face, it's disbelief. These three weeks must have felt like an eternity.
We share an illicit hug as he helps her to the car. I know the risk, but I can't let her leave without it.
I know he speaks minimal English but he nods and says "thank you" over and over again. Everything he wishes he could say expressed when our eyes meet.
"De nada." I hope my eyes express my admiration for his wife.
I learned a lot about her and her about me, just the two of us in that COVID room. It’s unlikely we’ll see each other again. But her victory is written on my heart. Neither of us will forget the journey we took to the side of the bed and out the front door.