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Profile of an ICU Nurse: Life on the Front Lines of a Pandemic

“It feels like a lot of pressure,” Shasta Champion says. In the midst of a global pandemic, my neighbor Shasta has one of the most vital jobs: an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) nurse. She works in the Covid-19 unit for the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU). As of May 15, OHSU had had a total of 210 Covid-19 cases. At the time, six of these patients were currently at the hospital and seven had died. Champion’s long shifts have always been taxing. Add on the intensity of working in a unit where coronavirus patients who die do so alone, without any family, and it becomes a whole different kind of challenging. 

Champion works long 14 hour days, three days a week, so she has four days off. She spends this time with her two three-year-old daughters and her girlfriend. Their favorite activity is “anything outside,” Champion says. “We love to garden, go to the park, play ball, camping, when that’s available. Anything involving fire. We love fire.” During this time, Champion says her family is enjoying having more time together. “We’re recognizing that really what life is about is family,” she says. They recently got a cat named Blueberry. And they enjoy cooking; Mexican food and big salads are two favorites. “We’re even more in our bubble of happiness than we were before,” she says. Champion hopes her daughters will take away from this experience that family is the most important thing. 

As a nurse in a unit with a highly contagious disease, Champion wears extensive personal protective equipment (PPE) at all times. She wears a face shield with a plastic cover over her N-95 mask.  The shield is cleaned in between patients. She also wears a gown covering her whole body and gloves over her gown. Champion has consistently had sufficient PPE throughout this pandemic. However, OHSU is running out of PPE, so employees are actively working to conserve it. The policy on N-95 masks has been altered to make the supply last longer. Previously, N-95 masks were replaced between each patient, but now they are only replaced every eight hours. Champion says, “Technically we still have enough [PPE] but soon we won’t. The hospitals are taking precautions to conserve before it’s too late.” 

The most challenging part of Champion’s job right now is being the code nurse for the hospital. As a code nurse, Champion says, “If someone is dying actively we try to ‘bring them back’ with compression and an airway bag. Intubation if necessary.” She has to keep up with a lot of protocol that’s sent to her through email. She gets a hundred emails a day about these protocol changes, an overwhelming amount. One of these changes was the move to using robots to do CPR and ventilate for patients who are dying. Otherwise, intubation brings medical professionals very close to highly contagious patients, so using robots reduces the risk of disease transmission. 

Covid-19 is so contagious that the unit Champion works in is a closed unit. This means that no visitors are allowed. As a result, patients who lose their lives are alone in their final moments. “These patients pass away without anybody in their life that’s present, which is really hard,” Champion says. The day before I talked to her, Champion witnessed the death of a Covid-19 patient who was an OHSU employee, like her. This was especially sad. Even though it’s not the same as being with family, staff members always have a moment of silence and prayer when someone dies to remember and honor them. 

During this unusually stressful time to be a nurse, Champion greatly values the other medical professionals she works with. “Those moments of hope are when you all just recognize that you’re there together and you feel solidarity with the people that you work with,” she says. The staff in her unit have a bond from working together for a long time. “It’s all about who you work with and how you support each other.”

With the spread of coronavirus in America’s cities, a wave of gratitude has formed for doctors and nurses who courageously expose themselves to Covid-19 in order to treat patients and save lives. Champion has personally felt this gratitude. She has had drinks, pizza, NIKE sweatpants, and even bottles of wine delivered to her unit. She says, “Everybody has been so supportive and involved in doing what they can to help… It’s a really beautiful thing to live in this community right now.” 

Champion does not believe it is time to reopen Oregon’s economy. She says, “I know [keeping businesses closed] makes people feel uncomfortable and probably pretty isolated, but I think opening up all of those facilities where people are gonna be in close quarters would be the wrong thing to do. Because people are still getting sick.” As a medical professional putting her health on the line, Champion doesn’t have patience for people protesting stay-at-home orders. “People go so nuts over nail salons and hair salons [being closed] and I think that’s selfish,” she says. Currently, Governor Kate Brown is taking a cautious approach to reopening businesses in Oregon. Champion supports this strategy that prioritizes health. 

In spite of the many challenges and the increased stress as a result of coronavirus right now, Champion doesn’t regret choosing to be a nurse. When I asked her what she would say to a high schooler interested in going into the medical field, she boldly said, “Do it. It’s so good. I love it. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.” 

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Profile of an ICU Nurse: Life on the Front Lines of a Pandemic