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Every weekday morning CAI brings you coverage of local issues, news, and stories that matter. Join us for Morning Edition from 6 a.m. to 9a.m., with Kathryn Eident.

Fear and Frustration: Nurse Assistant Recounts Experience Caring for COVID-19 Patients at MGH


Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston has by far the most COVID-19 patients of any hospital in the state – 447 cases as of Tuesday. WCAI spoke recently with a nursing student from Cape Cod who is caring for COVID patients at Mass General, and she shared how difficult and isolating the experience has been for both patients and staff.

We agreed not to use her name to protect her employment, but WCAI has verified her identity. WCAI Morning Edition Host Kathryn Eident talked with Reporter Jennette Barnes about what she learned.

Eident Hi, Jennette. Good morning.

Barnes Good morning, Katie.

Eident So, as I said, this nurse did not want to use her name because she didn't have permission to talk from the hospital where she works. But can you still tell us a couple of details about her?

Barnes Sure. She's in her early 20s and she grew up on Cape Cod. She works at Mass General right now as a nursing assistant, and she's studying to be a registered nurse. She said many; in fact, many of the assistants there are doing that. And she's going to graduate in August as an R.N.

She works on a floor that's all COVID-19 patients. It has 38 beds. She says that staffing has changed a little bit. Normally a nurse there would have three to four patients. When COVID-19 first started coming in, they actually put on enough staff so nurses would only have one or two patients. One of the big reasons for that was to make sure that everyone was comfortable with all the protocol they needed to do--to put on and take off their protective gear the right way and just get comfortable being on the unit in that situation. Recently, though, they're back to more like three or four patients. And she said part of the reason for that is that some of the nursing staff have actually gotten sick themselves.

One thing nurses on the Cape have actually asked for [is] hotel rooms they could stay in if they needed to isolate from their own families. This nursing assistant at Mass General says that hospital is offering those hotel rooms. She young, she lives by herself, so she is able to go home at night. But because of the quarantine situation, she hasn't seen her family or her boyfriend or friends.

Eident What did she tell you about what it's like to be a frontline health care worker in this crisis?

Barnes Well, she says the nurses are tired and they're emotional and they're they're ready for this to go away. They feel like their coworkers are the only ones who can really understand what it's like. They've seen their coworkers get sick. Of course, they've had patients who they've seen be gravely ill and patients in all kinds of conditions. Here she is talking a little bit about that:

"We've had people who are pregnant. We've had young people who have had to go to the ICU. We've had really old people, as well. It really is just—it's kind of like a war zone right now."

Barnes She says that at first some of the safety protocols seemed to change every 15 minutes as people were learning more about the virus. Now, they're hitting their stride, but the patients are coming in scared, knowing that they won't be able to see their families once they're in the unit. And the staff end up standing in almost for patients' families when the patients need someone to talk to, and even if the patients are dying. Here she is again:

"I've had so many patients ask me, am I going to get better? And the reality is, we don't know. Like, maybe, maybe not. But I think it's just hard because they come in and they can't have their family. They're scared. It's really just heartbreaking. "

Eident That is a lot, Jennette. How is she coping with this, having to be there emotionally as well as physically in providing this medical care?

Barnes Well, she says it's been tough. And as I said, some of the staff are socially isolated when they're not at work because of their own risk of exposure. One thing she's learned is that when a person's oxygen saturation drops, that's a key sign the patient may be going downhill and could end up intubated in the ICU. A handful of the patients on her floor have died. Here she is again:

"Just really awful. You see, like your coworkers and doctors just getting really emotional about it. I think everyone is kind of at their wits end. You know, like I said, you kind of become family to these patients. And so you don't really have anyone else. And I mean, we're really just giving our all to these patients."

Barnes She says she doesn't think people outside of health care realize how tough it is for them, especially when she sees people out in the city or photos of people online when they're out with their friends and they're having barbecues and things like that. They're not social distancing.

"That just kind of frustrating. It kind of feels like the work we're doing is nothing because the patients are coming."

Barnes So one way to support the medical staff then would be to stay away from those kinds of social gatherings. So, you don't put more of a burden on the caregivers.

Eident Well, Jennette, thank you so much for talking about what you learned in this conversation with this nurse at MGH.

Barnes I'm glad to do it. Thank you, Katie.

Eident That's Jennette Barnes, WCAI reporter.

*This transcript was lightly edited for grammar and clarity.

Jennette Barnes is a reporter and producer. Named a Master Reporter by the New England Society of News Editors, she brings more than 20 years of news experience to CAI.
Kathryn Eident was the Morning Edition Host and Senior Producer of News until November 2022.