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'If you think about it too much, you’ll be in tears' | Doctors and nurses open up about working through COVID-19 pandemic

They still expressed passion for their job, and hope for the future, despite a 21-month-long rollercoaster of fear, frustration and exhaustion.

HARTFORD, Conn — Just like the effects of long-haul COVID-19, trauma can linger. For the state’s doctors and nurses, the worst of the pandemic is over, but it hasn't necessarily left them.

FOX61 spoke with a doctor and nurse from St. Francis Hospital and a nurse from UConn Health about their experiences and found that there was no quit in any of them. The three still expressed passion for their job, and hope for the future, despite a 21-month-long rollercoaster of fear, frustration and exhaustion.

“I used to be able to pick up extra hours and help out, I can’t do that anymore,” said Jasmine Holman, a registered nurse at St. Francis. “I’m literally exhausted with my three 12-hour shifts.”

“You care for these patients day in and day out, month after month, the same patients, and you feel like they never get better, and you lose another one and another one, and that builds up over time and you carry that with you, said Kelly DeJospeh, the Assistant Nurse Manager in the ICU at UConn John Dempsey Hospital.

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Holman described having to tell a family of an out-of-state patient who was looking to transfer to St. Francis that there weren’t any more ECMO machines, which is a kind of heart-lung bypass machine often used as a last resort.

“I think one of the most heartbreaking things, it’s very very very very heartbreaking, is to have to say no,” she said, “that, for whatever reason, we just cannot accommodate a 30-year-old new mom who has an infant and then a toddler, and if she doesn’t get this, she’ll die and it’s because of COVID, and not vaccinated.”

“If you think about it too much, you’ll be in tears,” Holman said.

For Dr. Jen Martin, the Interim Chief Medical Officer at St. Francis, whose specialty is Emergency Medicine, the pandemic isn’t over, but things have calmed down.

“I’m well, I’m well. It’s been a long, almost two years, now, I guess,” she said.

Part of those two years was spent living in her driveway after a COVID scare.

“One of our children is immunosuppressed, and we didn’t know what to expect, and I talked to her doctor one day and I said ‘What should I do, should I send her to my parents in Massachusetts?’” she said, “and that was sort of our plan, and then one night we said why don’t we get an RV and we put an RV in our driveway for six weeks and [my husband] and I stayed in an RV and my parents moved into my house and took care of our children.”

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In the earliest part of the pandemic, Martin had to scramble just to be able to take the most basic and necessary safety precautions.

“In March and April, I remember through, like, Next Door or Facebook, putting advertisements and driving to, like, random neighborhoods near where I live, picking up PPE that people had bought overseas and donated,” Martin said.

That infamous shortage of personal protective equipment, or PPE, made for extra stress for Holman and DeJoseph.

“Originally, when the first round of COVID hit, we were a closed COVID unit, so we would enter work and put on a full suit and mask, two masks and a visor, a head covering, multiple pairs of gloves, and you would enter,” Holman said.

“I have glasses so all of the PPE for eye protection, my glasses are constantly fogged,” Holman laughed.

Some doctors and nurses, in addition to wearing two masks, had to also wear a papper, which is a self-contained air filtration device that’s worn around the waist.

“You would not be able to take any of that off until you could take a break, so you would go four, five hours at a time without being able to take a drink, use the restroom, scratch your nose if you wanted to,” said DeJoseph.

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Martin said all the protection made it harder to perform one critical function of their job.

“Experiencing that with a patient through three layers of PPE takes away from that component of trying to understand how they’re feeling and emote what you’re feeling and how you feel for them,” Martin said.

Back in April 2020, the state reached its highest number of COVID-related hospitalizations at one time, with just shy of 2,000. These days, there are far fewer patients, but they are skewing younger, and roughly three-quarters of them are unvaccinated.

However, in the ICU, Holman said nearly all the patients are unvaccinated. DeJoseph said every single unvaccinated ICU patient she had was regretful.

“All of them. Every single one,” said DeJoseph.

That regret, and the younger ages of those dying, have made it extra hard on the nurses with whom we spoke, at times.

“There’s been a lot of nurses, especially during COVID, during the peak of COVID, and even now who are witness to very traumatic deaths,” Holman said.

The final indignity for many severely sick and incapacitated patients is that they can’t visit with their family and friends before they pass. They would die entirely alone, if not for nurses like Holman and DeJoseph.

“We did allow Zoom visits with family and video visits but that doesn’t meet up with holding a hand or giving someone a hug,” DeJoseph said, “or seeing that close person, and they had been with us for months at that point, extended stays, and six, seven, eight weeks and had not seen a family member in that whole time, and then died alone.”

DeJoseph said she has experienced that somewhere between 10 and 20 times, so far.

Both DeJoseph and Holman said their employers did their best to keep nurses safe, and fresh, despite impossible circumstances, but both nurses said they also found strength in their coworkers.

“So, if there’s been, like, a traumatic incident or something that’s been difficult for us we’ll try to schedule something outside of work,” Holman said.

“We go on walks together, we do things together, we say without each other and having them to experience this with, I don’t know if anybody would have gotten through it,” said DeJoseph.

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They are getting through it and will continue to, even as cases are rising yet again in Connecticut. Some nurses didn’t make it this far – burning out and leaving jobs or leaving the profession altogether. However, doctors and nurses are tough cookies. DeJoseph, Holman and Martin all said brighter days are ahead.

“I think there’s finally a light at the end of the tunnel now that the vaccine has been widely distributed,” said DeJoseph.

“I hope that maybe those [employees who left the industry] find their way back and recognize that caring for patients, that’s why everybody went to medical school, PA school,” said Martin.

“One of the biggest things this pandemic has also highlighted is the resiliency in nursing as a profession,” said Holman.

“I can tell that the spirit is coming back, we’re hiring new employees, they’re excited to work here,” DeJoseph said. “People… they want to come to work, you know we want to help people, we want to do our jobs.”

Tim Lammers is an anchor at FOX61 News. He can be reached at Tlammers@fox61.com. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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