If there’s one message that ER nurse Tina Withrow wants to get out during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s that people need to take their part in the spread of the disease more seriously.
Withrow, who is currently working at the Flaget Memorial Hospital in Bardstown, Ky., near Louisville, taught nursing at the University of the Virgin Islands for two-and-a-half years until her return to Kentucky this past June. While not as badly affected as epicenters such as New York and Louisiana at this time, Kentucky is nonetheless starting to see a real increase in coronavirus patients, with more than 900 cases so far, and the number is steadily climbing daily. Withrow has no doubt that there are a lot more cases out there than we know of because of the lack of testing available.
“The reality is that we barely test them,” she said. “If you come in and you have those symptoms, we have to call the state health department and they say whether or not to test the patient, and a lot of times they won’t even test them. Especially if they are young, we just tell them that they have the signs and symptoms of the coronavirus and need to go home and stay in the house for 14 days. Isolate yourself, but come back to the ER if you start experiencing extreme shortness of breath.”
A nurse for 20 years, Withrow is used to dealing with seriously ill patients, but one of the most difficult and “gut wrenching” issues for coronavirus patients is the isolation. According to Withrow, they’ve found that if the patient gets to the point where they are actually put on a ventilator, their chances of survival are very low, but no family members are allowed by their bedside, so they are dying alone and afraid. Withrow has had to tell patients before they are put on a ventilator that they need to call or do whatever they have to do to say goodbye, because there’s a very good chance that they will never get off it.
As scary and potentially life threatening as contracting the virus is, imagine exposing yourself all day, every day, the way nurses and doctors do throughout this nation and the world. The severe lack of personal protection equipment such as N-95 respirator masks make a difficult job even harder, and it’s getting harder every day. Each time they enter the hospital, they are screened. Those with a temperature of 100.4 are sent home to self-quarantine for 14 days. They have to use surgical masks, which do not provide adequate protection. When Withrow works in the isolation rooms, she is issued an N-95 mask and is advised to seal it up in a brown paper bag for eight hours to use again. Nurses have already left to help in severely affected areas such as New York, leaving a gap that has to be filled by the nurses left behind.
“I found that the younger nurses that are coming into the nursing program during this, they’re saying ‘this is not what I signed up for,’” Withrow said, “but being a nurse for 20 years, in my opinion, this is exactly what we signed up for. I took an oath to protect and help people regardless.”
The stress and strain of constant exposure and not knowing each day whether she has been infected has caused Withrow to self-quarantine when not at work for fear of transmitting the disease to her two adult children and her mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease. Although they Facetime and text, she has actually not seen her children in two months. Her anxious 21-year old son has begged her repeatedly not to go to work because of the lack of protection.
All in all, Withrow and her colleagues feel people are not taking this virus seriously enough.
“There are so many people that have the disease with no or little symptoms and they are spreading it from one person to the other,” she said. “I don’t know if they are just in denial or just don’t know how to react, but this is happening. This is real. What I’ve been trying to tell people is I know you don’t want to stay in your house and you’re 21 and you have no symptoms. But you could be a carrier and give it to your grandmother. It could be a death sentence for her and she’s going to die all alone in that hospital bed. If you can picture before you go out your family member dying all alone, that in itself should stop you from leaving the house.”
Having lived and worked on St. Thomas, Withrow is concerned about the preparedness of the Virgin Islands. She keeps in touch with many of her UVI nursing students and urges them to do their part to contain the spread of this deadly disease.
“If we don’t have the resources here, I can’t even begin to imagine what the Virgin Islands is going to go through. I know the hospital there and they already have limited resources, and as people get sicker, there will be an overcrowded ER. There’s also an increase in the mental health and substance abuse cases and that is something that will also happen in the Virgin Islands that they are not really well equipped to take care of. My heart is so with the St. Thomas people.”