My nursing career began in a pandemic. As a student nurse, I was assigned a clinical rotation on the HIV/AIDS unit at the former Graduate Hospital in Philadelphia. At that time, before fully funded research and clinical trials and antiretrovirals, there wasn’t much more we could do for our patients beyond comfort care. So you wore a smile, room to room, like a mask, because they were so scared and, honestly, so were we.
Now, at the opposite end of my nursing career, we were awash in another pandemic.
The first wave of the Coronavirus hit Philadelphia in March, and each day the emails from Hospital Administration took on a more and more ominous tone. They warned of PPE shortages and, most concerning, a new policy of one mask per nurse per week.
“Did you see that email?” staff asked one another, as if we had all misread the same line, “One mask per week?” It was inconceivable that access to masks, the safety net, the keystone of a nurse’s protective gear, had become so fragile.
I was re-assigned from my role as chemotherapy educator for newly diagnosed cancer patients to outreach nurse for the Palliative Care team, tasked with tracking down next of kin of ventilated patients. I started to recognize names on my daily list, names of employees – security guards, nurses, housekeepers. The hospital’s intranet site started posting a daily tally of the number of Covid positive inpatients, like a Nasdaq of virus, with a steady upward trend.
One afternoon, our unit’s housekeeper, Thomas, didn’t show up. Thomas rolled down the hall every afternoon at four, pushing a cart with his mop, bucket, and cleaning supplies. He was perpetually joyful, despite having one of the most difficult jobs in the hospital, and it crushed us when we heard he had passed away from Covid.
I drove home after each shift with the car radio set to NPR, listening to the latest interviews and updates on the virus from the so aptly named program, Fresh Air. Then, over dinner, I tuned into the daily White House Coronavirus Task Force press briefings with Donald Trump at the helm, obfuscating the science.
I fervently wished they had a nurse on their task force. A nurse would not have looked at her shoes, as Dr. Birx did, when Donald Trump suggested injecting bleach as a coronavirus cure. A nurse would not have chuckled behind a facepalm, as Dr. Fauci did, when Donald Trump said this was a “Deep State Department conspiracy.” A nurse would have waved her hands and called for a clarification time out, as we’re trained to do, as our license requires. We would not avert our eyes, as every member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force did when in the presence of Donald Trump.
Other people started to avert their eyes, too. Some social media friends accused doctors of lying about Covid on death certificates, others claimed photos of nurses wearing trash bags as PPE were faked, and that people who followed mask mandates were “sheeple”. Masks became a sign of political affiliation. It took too much energy to explain the science, all you could do was unfriend and wonder how you ever came to have so many uncaring “friends”.
On my birthday, instead of the long-planed trip to Amsterdam, my husband and I set out on a road trip, socially distanced, to the Civil War battlefields of my Union Army Irish ancestor. Walking through Antietam with a Spotify list from Ken Burns Civil War playing in my back pocket, I had hoped to gain some understanding of how we could become so divided and deeply entrenched, but all the monuments to battle made it more confusing.
The hospital tried to help by offering stressed-out staff access to telephonic counseling sessions and meditation apps. Administrators offered free coffee, local businesses dropped off snacks, and QVC, the shopping network headquartered in suburban Philadelphia, sent each nurse a goody bag filled with moisturizers, make-up, and a RuPaul pore minimizer that will be useful in the mask-less future.
For me, a day-off backyard painting session with my pre-school grandsons pointed the way back to positivity. Watching a two, three, and four-year-old paint is a lesson in zen that no amount of meditation apps could teach. They embraced the opportunity for expression that lives in a blank canvas, the tactile joy of dipping a brush into a bubble of color, of seeing how the color looked on their skin, on a rock, on a blade of grass.
Their paint palette preferences were defined by the eye mask color of their favorite Ninja Turtle. Patrick painted in blue for Leonardo, Brendan in red for Raphael and Pearse preferred purple for Donatello.
“You have to paint with orange,” I was told, “for Michelangelo.”
Following their instruction, I accepted my mask assignment and dove into my painting. I worked like they did, focused and confident in my brushstrokes. With the exception of the occasional sippy cup refills, there were no interruptions, no phone calls to make or bad news to deliver, just fresh air and art and catharsis.
At the conclusion of our painting day, the boys had elaborate stories about the subject of their paintings. Patrick told me his was a cat. I tilted my head, and yes, I could see it. Brendan had painted a spaceship, he pointed out, “It’s right there.” Two-year-old Pearse was surprised, insulted even, that I inquired what his painting was because, obviously, it was a dinosaur.
I took a step back from my painting, not quite sure of what I had created. I stared, squinted, turned the canvas to horizontal and back again to vertical. Slowly, what began to emerge was a wave, a wave that was pushing away a sea of masks, masks of all colors. Floating just out of reach, in the center of the painting, was an orange mask, Michelangelo’s, who might be a ninja, or maybe, a nurse.
LIZ KERR has had poetry, short stories, and non-fiction published in Philadelphia City Paper, Philly Fiction, The Galway Review, Sixteen Magazine (Dublin), Jewish Currents Magazine, Rust Belt Rising, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Ice Colony, and Irish Central. She is a registered nurse in heart transplant and oncology at a Philadelphia hospital. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and dual Irish and American citizenship. You can find more of their work at lizvkerr.gallery.