The struggle of health care workers in a global pandemic

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Elise Ledesma | The Arbiter

Health care workers, especially nurses, saw a side of the COVID-19 pandemic most people were never exposed to — a pandemic that has claimed the lives of over 1.1 million Americans brought on hopelessness, economic collapse and uncertainty to the lives of millions.

What has often been overlooked during this nightmare is the mental toll placed on humans who did everything in their power to save lives, and had to call the families and coroners for those they couldn’t. 

What has also been ignored is how the next generation of practicing nurses would respond to seeing the challenges faced by those in their field, and who would step up next in caring for the sick and dying. 

Aimee Brooks has been a critical nurse practitioner for six years. She spent nine years in the US army, four years in military intelligence and then five years as a nurse in a combat support hospital. She served in Iraq from 2003-2004, during the height of the war. 

After her service, she became an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) nurse for nine years and counting and is now working at St. Luke’s in Meridian, Idaho.

“It helps a lot having been a soldier because it’s a lot of the same things you go through, the PTSD parts, the death,” Brooks said. 

Brooks told The Arbiter that normally they would experience about one death per day in the ICU. At the height of the pandemic, they experienced about five deaths a day, many of which were white and Hispanic males in their 40s.

“It felt like a lot of helplessness because we would throw everything at them to try and get them better and regardless of anything we had to offer medically they would still die,” Brooks said. “That was so unexpected. I think that played a little bit of a role in the disbelief with the public.” 

Brooks would have patients who, because of something they read online, assumed she would make more money if a patient died or got put on life support, despite the claim having no basis in reality. Nurses are salaried and get paid for the quality of work they do.

norco building
[Photo of the Boise State Norco Building.]
Elise Ledesma | The Arbiter

Some people would refuse to believe the health care they received was the reason for their survival or an improvement in health, citing prayers or soup being brought in by parents as reasons for recovery. At one point, people carrying guns had gathered outside of Brooks’ workplace at St. Luke’s and threatened to break into the locked down hospital in a desperate effort to see their families.

This led some nurses to question why they still held onto their job. At the end of the day, support from community members, the number of lives saved and the comradery among her co-workers encouraged them to push forward.

2014 Boise State Alumni Jocelyn Johns was an ICU nurse at Saint Luke’s for eight years up until November 2021. She now works as a nurse practitioner. 

“My little sister had aplastic anemia as a 5 year old requiring a bone marrow transplant. After seeing the oncology nurses work with her I was inspired to pursue nursing,” Jones told The Arbiter over text message.

She said the pandemic was extremely difficult, where it felt like patients and families didn’t trust the work they were doing or the care they were providing. It was the hardest during the delta variant where patients were dying daily, a vast majority of which were unvaccinated.

“It was difficult for the medical staff to have our care and decisions questioned when everything we do is research and evidence based,” Johns said. “At the same time, I felt we had overwhelming community support from many local businesses and families. We were given food, smoothies and many little treats to keep us going.”

For Boise State nursing students, the pandemic served as a motivating factor for them to pursue their field, not a deterrent. 

Junior nursing major Meagan Mulligan told The Arbiter that her family experiences were a major factor in shaping her decision to study nursing.

“My whole life has revolved around medical care. My brother, he was special needs. He recently passed away a month ago. My mom was his full time caregiver for 23 years. So I just grew up going to the hospital appointments, all his surgeries, he had a feeding tube, all sorts of different things.” Mulligan said. “The nurses themselves, just because we were there at the hospital all the time, they were just such a strong point for our family in helping us throughout our time in need.”

These experiences inspired her to help other families when they needed that rock to hold onto when their loved ones were in the hospital. Working as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) in the ICU during the pandemic pushed her more toward the field to help families and address nursing shortages.

”I am a CNA in the health care field, and I was a CNA during the pandemic at St. Lukes. [The pandemic] actually made me want to become a nurse even more,” said Hannah Whinery, second-year nursing major. “Watching the struggle was hard during the pandemic, especially the shortages, but it actually made me want to be a nurse even more.” 

Whinery told The Arbiter that both her family and the desire to help people inspired her to go into the medical field. Her sister is also a nurse at St. Luke’s in Boise. 

The COVID pandemic changed the world forever, from transforming the ways governments approach public health and new trends in the labor market, to long lasting mental and physical health problems. One of the few certainties is that the health care field will continue to draw in people with a mission to help others and a will to keep society healthy, despite the recent challenges on full display.

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