The ER Diaries: inside a California hospital, a sneeze can cause a panic


My second shift is already feeling “normal” with the questions, the absence of family member and staff milling about in the halls. The echo of my footsteps off the cold, sterile floors reminds me of the times we are living in. We’re in this together but it feels awfully lonely.

Today’s pre-shift meeting has its moments. We’re instructed to test for Covid-19 only if the patient is critical enough for admission to the hospital. So the goal doesn’t appear to be to find the positive cases to isolate, but to identify the truly sick as evidence of what we probably already know. The honeymoon is over.

Related: A nurse's coronavirus journal: 'Rumors abound, stories fry our nerves'

The department is filling up now. The tent is in full swing treating people for influenza-like illness. There’s a backlog of patients waiting on inpatient beds. Strangely the return of a frenzied atmosphere calms my nerves and takes my mind off the Covid-19 mess. Once again most of my patients are truly in need of the hospital’s services. The BS and regulars are still staying away.

I have my first rule-out Covid patient and then my second shortly after. Both get swabbed, but it took heavy pressure and multiple requests to the physician to get the order. I also realize that all the talk about limited PPE supplies is legitimate, when I can’t find eye protection and I’m instructed to keep my surgical mask for multiple uses. I recall how just one year ago I wore two masks at once with a teabag sandwiched between them to reduce the overwhelming smell while cleaning a patient with Clostridioides difficile. Clearly the new normal is going to come at some costs.

At hour eight of my shift I start to feel a little tickle in my throat. It would never have bothered me before, but now a sneeze can cause panic. I have to rationally talk myself out of believing this is the end. Never once have I been a hypochondriac or have I fallen prey to hysteria. Now I’m noticing that I have to calm myself down, which leads me to realize the mental anguish this virus is having on all of us.

Another shift complete, more unanswered questions and a few tweaks to our workflow that will hopefully keep us and our patients safe. I’m doubly exhausted today, and grateful to have the next few days to recuperate, relax and keep a clear mind.