This story is by Sharon Hetherington and won an Honorable Mention in our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Sharon Hetherington lives in London Ontario, Canada. A “story collector” by nature, Sharon credits her experience serving others in the nonprofit sector for her unique ability to feel, rather than just tell a story. “Let us not be afraid to dive deep into the murky depths of inaction to bring forth empathy and compassion.” You can find her on LinkedIn.
In a shadowed corner of the hospital stairwell she sits, crumpled like a discarded wad of paper, arms wound tight around her legs to still their trembling. In time, when her fury is finally exhausted, her body will unfurl, its energy spent. This stairwell is her private refuge, where the sobs that rattle her body and cleanse her soul are heard only by the walls around her. Perspiration beads her forehead, a display of damp patchwork darkening her scrub cap. Her skin prickles beneath it, but she barely notices. She barely notices the smell of stale sweat seeping out from scrubs that should have been changed days ago, if only she had the energy to care. There is no one here to judge, but there is no one here to comfort either.
Any scrap of comfort scraped from under all this misery is reserved for the dozens of people lying in the ICU. Hope drains from their eyes with each labored breath as minutes are suffocated by hours, then days and sometimes weeks. They are truly alone in their fight to survive. Loved ones appear only in drug-induced dreams, swirling in and out like unsettled spirits in the mist.
She is their family here. She and her colleagues are the link to life, the ray of hope. They do everything humanly possible to help their patients. But behind their masks, the doctors and nurses quietly fight their own internal battles. Isolated from their families and the comfort of their own beds, having a shower or a proper meal is a precious luxury. Exhaustion, both mental and physical, simmers in the background, waiting for the break and ready to consume, like a flame licking a dried leaf. Just keep going! flashes in front of her eyes. How many times has she repeated those words?
She, an ICU nurse, is now also a lifeline between patient and family. She feels compelled to answer patient cell phones as they vibrate and ring incessantly throughout the day and into night, filling the ward with musical chatter. Her stomach sours at how misplaced those sounds are amidst the swishing of protective gowns swirling around staff legs and clashing with the never-ending rhythm of ventilators whooshing breath into the lungs of their hosts. She loathes how each bright ringtone hides the fact there is a frantic caller on the other end of the line pleading for someone to pick up. And when she does pick up, her nerves are on edge, knowing that she will have to bear the anguish of telling yet another parent, spouse, son or daughter they must stay away, or their loved one has just been intubated, or worse, is not likely to survive the virus that is ripping out the heart of the world.
She sucks in a ragged breath as she recalls the number of hands she has held through their last moments. Her swollen eyes ache like a battered fighter when she squeezes them tight to black out the grim images. This isn’t what I signed up for! she screams inside her head. She became a nurse to save lives, not stand by helpless, watching them slip away one after the other.
Defeated, her body sags into the coolness of the wall. She tries to focus only on her breath: inhale two three … Why is this happening … hold two three … I can’t take any more … exhale and release. Fat tears spill again, tickling a stream down behind her mask, pooling at the corners of her mouth. She is no stranger to the salty taste on her lips.
Guilt threatens to swallow her whenever she longs for a comforting embrace, a few encouraging words, or something — geez, anything that might help her to see light at the end of this dark tunnel. But these days, even the slightest gesture of kindness would totally wreck her. Her protective walls are cracked and fragile, barely keeping her from shattering into jagged shards of despair. I will not let my patients see me broken! They are in a fight for their very lives. They need her, need all the medical staff to be on their game; to keep them fighting; to keep fighting for them.
Finally, the storm within dissipated, she begins to pull herself together. The sobs of frustration that stripped her to the core have eased. She is weary, but cleansed. She lifts her head and just breathes, eyes closed, willing her heartbeat to slow. Her mind stirs through the embers of emotion, and she again wonders if she too will get sick, if she too will lay isolated in the ICU, relying on her colleagues to keep her going. Her mind’s eye looks behind the masks of the doctors and nurses she knows so well. She relaxes just a little, a fragile smile puckering her own mask. If the plague does get me, there’s no better place to be than here, in my ICU. Her colleagues are dedicated, kind and committed to giving their very best, no matter what.
Pulling herself up, she slowly works out the stiffness that has settled into her bones. What a way to spend my precious few minutes of break time, she muses, looking down at the untouched cup of cold tea on the floor. But she needs this.
“Crap,” she mumbles softly to herself. She’s wearing her last face mask, now soggy from tears and cold against her flushed cheeks. A stark reminder of how bad things are. Today, she teetered on the edge, so desperate for release that she forgot to remove it. Probably a good thing, since she doesn’t have a spare. Tea will just have to wait. “Won’t be the first time, or the last,” she mutters.
She gingerly touches the raw skin behind her ears and on the bridge of her nose, wincing only slightly at the sting. Battle scars. Amid the chaos of these past weeks, she became accustomed to the irritation that is now just another part of her “normal”; another reality to deal with. There are far more important things to worry about than her scabs. Still, adjusting the ear strings for the umpteenth time, she is reminded again of everything this little piece of fabric represents.
Like armor, it protects her from the virus, at least to some extent. And like a veil, it blurs her emotions. Smiles are lost behind the fabric; encouraging words are muted. Tears slide quietly down behind, disappearing quickly from view and the questions that naturally follow. The mask hides her fear, sadness and despair in not being able to save every patient. The storm of emotion that churns behind the thin piece of fabric finds its release only in this stairwell, her refuge.
And in the ICU ward where respirators sigh in melancholy chorus, hoses and tubes join bodies to machinery like artificial umbilical cords. Curtains shroud beds, isolating each patient into a private pod of misery. But hospital staff is also isolated — by their PPE! she thinks, a new spark of frustration flashing in her eyes. Focused only on task, everyone rushes around too frazzled to notice what isn’t there. The warmth of a smile, the comfort of a hug, even the light touch of a high five over a rare success story is now absent. Breaks and meals are taken in solitude, most too tired to eat, some choosing instead to nap or call home or, as in her case, vent. How many other stairwells in this hospital are soundboards to someone’s despair? Looking at the bland walls, she feels grateful that her stairwell is rarely used these days. This is her personal place of self-isolation; where her walls are free to tumble down, unleashing the hurricane of angst that rages within her. She needs this.
Eyes now dry and mask firmly in place, her face and her emotions are hidden from view. She takes a final cleansing breath: inhale two three … I’m ok … hold two three … Just keep going! … exhale and release. Opening the stairwell door, she enters the ward, instantly falling into the frantic pace of colleagues rushing to save the world.
At the doorway to the critical care unit, where every patient is intubated, she carefully adjusts her mask again and inspects her gown and gloves before entering. A new patient lies in the bed where the young woman, the one who was a new mother, had expired only minutes ago.
The man’s lips are bluish and slack behind the oxygen mask. Doctors and nurses are huddled, murmuring about vitals and procedures, preparing him for the unthinkable. His eyes, sunken and watery with fear, roll bleakly in their sockets toward her, fusing to her own eyes in a silent plea for help. She hesitates, swallows the urge to turn and run, and then steps closer. Hugging his hand with both of hers, she hides behind her mask, giving him the comfort that she cannot take for herself. He needs this.