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A Traveling ICU Nurse Describes Taking On The Latest COVID Surge

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We are continuing to check in with health care workers still on the frontlines of this pandemic, and that includes Grover Nicodemus Street - a military veteran and traveling nurse with the company Fastaff. Back in March, after a year of treating COVID patients across the country, he told us this.

GROVER NICODEMUS STREET: What I have seen throughout the year, I would rather die any other way of dying than dying with coronavirus. It's a sad way to go. And war - war has - war doesn't even compare to this.

CHANG: But also in March, Street told us he saw some hope after getting immunized.

STREET: Having the vaccine has made me feel more comfortable going into the patients' rooms. And, you know, I feel great. I feel much safer.

CHANG: We caught up with Street again on assignment at a hospital in Oceanside, Long Island, where he now says the anxiety he feels on the job is back to where it was this time last year. I asked him what changes he's seen in treating cases now compared to back in the spring.

STREET: You know, it's so odd to see older people in their 70s and 80s who are vaccinated. They come in with these symptoms, but their symptoms are a lot milder than these patients who are in their 30s, 40s. I've even seen a 25-year-old. I had a 25-year-old that tested positive that was unvaccinated. My question to them is, if you get better and you get through this, will you get vaccinated? And they said absolutely, because they feel like they're going to die.

CHANG: Wow. So at least you are seeing people go through these conversions. Like, they change their minds about getting vaccinated after they've contracted COVID.

STREET: Yes, ma'am.

CHANG: That's good news, right?

STREET: Every patient - well, it's good news in a sense. But, you know, it's bad because people who are sick right now didn't think they would get sick. People who have died throughout the pandemic last year and who are still dying, those are people who said, well, I'm not going to get sick. I'm healthy. I'm strong. I'm not going to get sick. And then now they're on their deathbed. That's scary.

CHANG: What do you say to them? Like, do you try to reason with them?

STREET: I tell them - whenever they're on their deathbed and just trying to fight to breathe, I really don't want to, you know, like, chastise them and say, hey, you should have done that. I don't want to point my finger. I hold their hand and I say, we're going to get through this. But after we get through this, you need to go get vaccinated. This is why we're here, and this is why we're having this conversation right now. That's what I tell them.

CHANG: Yeah. You know, again, the last time you talked with us, another thing that you mentioned was that you were seeing doctors, nurses, other health care workers quit because the pandemic had gotten so overwhelming for them. Are you still seeing that - many of your colleagues struggling and just wanting to leave health care altogether?

STREET: Yes, ma'am. Nurses everywhere and physicians, they burn out. And they're quitting the industry left and right. I hope nursing school enrollments increase, medical school enrollments increase. Respiratory therapists are under-recognized throughout this pandemic. And it's like, they're right there swimming in it. So coronavirus has changed the culture of the world. We need nurses and people in the medical industry because we're not going to have anybody to take care of us.

CHANG: In the end, though, Grover, how are you taking care of yourself these days? I mean, we're a year and a half in. Things are not abating at the moment. How are you - how are you checking in with yourself day after day after day?

STREET: I stay active after work. I work out. I'm in the gym for a couple hours. I mean, I do well by relieving stress that way. And I go for hikes. And then I talk to my wife a lot on the phone, and that helps relieve a lot of this anxiety, you know? And it is PTSD to the nth degree for everybody. There's - this virus has touched every single person on the planet.

CHANG: What is the past trauma you think this pandemic is bringing out for people?

STREET: First of all, the trauma that - the patients and their families of the ones that have passed on. I think the grieving process for something of this nature is going to take a lot longer because a lot of people have in the back of their minds, well, it could have been prevented if we would have just worn a mask, or it could have been prevented if we would have just gotten vaccinated. And the ones that haven't seen lost loved ones, they lost jobs. They have broken homes. It goes deeper than just health care. You know, it's our economy. It's on so many levels that we have been affected by Mother Nature.

CHANG: Grover Nicodemus Street is a traveling nurse and author of the book "Chasing The Surge: Life As A Travel Nurse In A Global Pandemic." Thank you very much for taking the time again to speak with us.

STREET: Yes, ma'am. Thank you, and I enjoyed talking with you guys. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.