Mar 08, 2021
By Santina Weatherby

Even nurses need nursing: what I didn’t expect when expecting during COVID-19

Courtesy of Santina Weatherby and istockphoto.com/portfolio/fotok0t“To be on the receiving end of nursing care has been a learning experience, especially experiencing firsthand the nursing power of empathy and compassion,” says Santina Weatherby, shown here with her two children. “It has reminded me that the practice of nursing is much more than our physical skills and ingenuity — it is the connection we have with our clients.”

As nurses, I believe we often feel privileged when accessing health-care services for our own needs. Perhaps this is because we know the providers and staff, or the locale may be familiar, even a former workplace. Or the tests we are undergoing are familiar to us, or because we have the education and experience to know what to expect.

In any case, nurses have a level of confidence when we present for care that someone outside the health-care realm might not. Yet, my recent experiences in accessing health care have taught me that even nurses need nursing.

Here is my story.

A new virus

Early 2020 brought whispers of a new virus in China that was gathering strength at an alarming speed. As a nurse practitioner, I found this scary. But it was happening so far away that it didn’t set alarm bells ringing. Besides, my husband and I were focused at the time on the coming of our second child in September.

By March my pregnancy was progressing on track. The looming pandemic had been announced, and I was keenly following literature from the UK and China about effects the virus could have on pregnancy. Furthermore, my primary care practice made me acutely aware of the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Through clinical recommendations gleaned from employer emails and briefings, I realized that not only my work-life would be affected and modified, but so would my own health care during this pregnancy.

Clinics and offices went to phone-based appointments only; this pushed initial clinic prenatal appointments to 12 weeks or later, and meant that healthy prenatal visits would be spaced farther apart and supplemented with phone visits.

All the unknowns were scary. I was constantly worrying: what happens if I am exposed to the virus? what happens if I contract it — what will happen to my health, my baby, my job? Regardless, I put on my white lab coat and ventured into work every day.

My pregnancy, up until mid-March, was going well and my husband and I were coping with the changes brought on by the virus. But then, it happened: I became the patient.

Because pandemic restrictions were in place, I spent my visits in the ED alone.

Complications

At 17 weeks I landed in the emergency department (ED) with elevated blood pressure and subsequent symptoms. I was also diagnosed with hypertension and some serum lab abnormalities that would require followup.

Because pandemic restrictions were in place, I spent my visits in the ED alone. At the time I didn’t realize how I missed being able to have another pair of ears to listen to the physician’s and nurse’s instructions. Typically, as a nurse I feel confident hearing health and medical news, even if it’s about my own health. That would soon change.

By 19 weeks I was being followed by obstetrics and was making regular visits to the regional hospital’s maternity floor for labs and assessments, each time attending appointments alone. It had become overwhelming: internal medicine, high-risk obstetric clinics, diagnostic imaging appointments.

Nevertheless, I was always greeted and cared for by professional and caring nurses, who, despite being masked, always conveyed a smile and a welcome. During one of my ED visits, a nurse advocated for me to receive imaging, despite the after-hours restraints. This meant the world to me, because I wouldn’t have to live with uncertainty for a longer period of time.

Unfortunately, once while presenting to an appointment, I had to answer “yes” to the question, “Have you come in contact with a known or suspected case of COVID-19?” Since I was exposed to someone who was awaiting a result based on their symptoms, I was unable to continue to my appointment. I was devastated.

I was anxious about the abnormal labs and not feeling the best. My care team made arrangements for a phone visit later that day, which helped ease my nerves. I was advised to make an appointment when the suspect case results were back.

Later in the day, I learned the case was negative. What a relief! I was able to keep my appointment a few days later — only to learn my pregnancy had further potential complications. Once again, I felt alone.

A double standard

As the weeks went by, it seemed COVID-19 screening was being updated every few days. I continued to worry what question I would have to answer “yes” to next, and how this might affect my care.

As a nurse employee, I often felt in limbo. It seemed a double standard: nurses were expected to work if, despite potential exposure, you were asymptomatic, but as a patient, you couldn’t attend your own appointments. You were required to wear a mask while working, but as a patient, you didn’t need to (at the time; this standard was later revised). It was confusing, and added another layer of unknowns.

By May, I was admitted to hospital. I became increasingly unwell, and the physicians and nurses weren’t sure why I was presenting with such symptoms. Had you told me I would spend part of National Nursing Week as a patient, I wouldn’t have believed you. But there I was — gown, IVs, monitors, stool sample collection kits, the whole nine yards!

I was 21 weeks along, and I was starting to worry; it was probably the first time I’d been scared for my own health and that of my baby. My anxieties were compounded by my physical symptoms, which seemed unexplainable. This meant I was going to need a COVID-19 swab, and would be placed on precautions.

This is when it really sunk in — how isolated our patients feel. I couldn’t leave my room, I couldn’t have family present, I felt awful and weak, no one seemed to know what was wrong with me, and now I had to worry about being COVID positive! My anxiety increased; it felt like everything was crashing down around me.

Despite being masked, gowned, gloved, and goggled, nurses continue to shine through.

When the nurses came in for medications and assessment, it was obvious I was anxious. Yet although they were covered head to toe in PPE, their demeanour remained calm and compassionate. Several times as nurses sat with me, I would start crying out of worry. They would encourage me and reassure me that I would feel better soon with treatment.

During my brief time in hospital, nurses were the only comfort I had. This was probably one of the first times I personally experienced the power of nursing care. The work we do is so much more than just our “job”; nurses really are healers.

A learning experience

The weeks passed by and my visits to the hospital continued. Thankfully after a while, my blood work was improving and I was feeling better.

Yet by my mid and late second trimester, there were still hospital visits, once by ambulance to emergency again for syncope, and a few visits to maternity for headaches, vision changes, and cramping. I had become what some might call a “frequent flyer.” But every time I presented for care, I was met with understanding and kindness.

To be on the receiving end of nursing care has been a learning experience, especially experiencing firsthand the nursing power of empathy and compassion. It has reminded me that the practice of nursing is much more than our physical skills and ingenuity — it is the connection we have with our clients.

Even nursesneed reassurance and objective nursing assessments. Our own confidence, and perhaps even pride, may obscure our judgment of our health. We must put our expertise aside and reach out for help.

Another excellent takeaway from my experience is the recognition that nursing is a resilient profession. In this pandemic, we have constantly been asked to adapt, modify, update, and create new ways of practising nursing while continuing to deliver safe, patient-centred care. Despite being masked, gowned, gloved, and goggled, nurses continue to shine through.

I am pleased to say that my baby arrived healthy and happy. My journey had many ups and downs, and I couldn’t have made it without the support of family, my nursing and physician colleagues and co-workers, my obstetrics care team, and all the wonderful allied health professionals with whom I interacted: EHS paramedics, ED staff, DI staff, lab staff, admin and food services — and of course, the ever hard-working environmental services staff.

It’s so obvious now — even nurses need nursing.

Santina Weatherby, RN, MN, NP, is a family/all-ages nurse practitioner at the West Pictou Health Centre in Pictou, NS.

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