Southeast ICU nurse shares pandemic experiences
Jamie Pinney is a 42-year-old nurse who lives in Sellwood and works at a Portland-area hospital [he doesn't want to disclose the name, since he is speaking only for himself], serving in the Intensive Care Unit (I.C.U.). He says that, during this time of COVID-19, working in the I.C.U. has been very demanding and stressful.
He and the other nurses in his I.C.U. unit are trained to specialize in treating pulmonary problems. He works 12-hour shifts three days a week with doctors who are pulmonologists. They utilize ventilators and ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation), which is a therapy that adds oxygen to the blood – temporarily taking over the work of nonfunctioning or severely-stressed lungs.
"We treat patients who are EXTREMELY sick with COVID," he tells THE BEE. "We're trained to treat people who have severe lung problems, who can only be taken care of in certain hospitals that have staff with the necessary capabilities and equipment available all of the time. There are only a handful of hospitals in the area that can do that."
Unlike many hospitals in the country, he says they have been fortunate to have the necessary PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) from the start of the pandemic.
He has been working at the same hospital for eighteen years, and thus was also a nurse when the 2014 Ebola outbreak reached the U.S. At that time, the United States federal government was telling doctors and nurses in this country what to expect and do in case there were Ebola cases at their hospitals. They were also sending nurses to the CDC to train especially for that disease.
And, in 2009, when the H1N1 "swine flu" virus was infecting people in the U.S., Pinney says it was a "pretty gnarly disease", but they dealt with it effectively because of adequate data. [The epic "Spanish Flu" pandemic in 1918 was caused by a subtype of the H1N1 virus, but the swine flu proved considerably less fatal, for reasons still unclear.]
Pinney says the lack of testing and contact-tracing did not provide doctors and nurses in the U.S. adequate COVID-19 data to work from, in the early months of the pandemic. However, he says, fortunately by the time COVID-19 hit Oregon, local medical personnel at least had templates from Washington State, China, Italy, and New York to inform medical staff, and help them cope with the virus. He adds that it was helpful that Oregon also locked down pretty early, and took the disease seriously.
He is not shy about describing the emotional and physical toll that COVID-19 is taking on nurses. "I have to be honest. In the beginning, I was dreading going to work – getting used to the increased amount of PPE, the constant masking, and facing so many unknowns."
Pinney says that even now, still just entering the room of a suffering COVID-19 patient can be stressful. "Most of us have moderate levels of anxiety. Some have high anxiety. Three weeks of work can now seem like six months, even though Oregon's numbers [of cases and deaths] have been low, relative to the rest of the nation."
But, he says, "I really want people to recognize that this is what we nurses do all the time! It is just more anxiety-provoking now."
The overall responsibility of the work can be daunting. "I have nightmares and anxiety about work. I have a wife and three children, but I know nurses who are stressed not only because of vulnerable family members, but because they have pets or close friends [that they want to continue living for]."
He feels very fortunate to have a wife who has a great deal of experience also as a career I.C.U. Nurse, so she understands what he is going through. "I don't have to explain everything. She knows. And my biking to and from work, and doing stretching and yoga, also help a lot."
His father is a retired Emergency Room physician who has decided he needed to go back to work, and is helping during the pandemic. That role model is also helpful – even though, as Pinney says, "the E.R. is a very different beast from the I.C.U."
Jamie Pinney says he cannot emphasize enough the importance of Oregonians continuing to wear masks, keeping physical distancing, and washing hands. "Oregon is among the top ten of lowest COVID cases and death rates across the country, and we want to keep the numbers down. It is possible to protect the public in simple ways, and still have a normal semblance of life."
For him, that "normal semblance" took place in late August – 3½ weeks of vacation camping with his family. Upon his return he remarked to THE BEE, "Now I am refreshed, and ready to get back into the fight."
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