Rage, fear, and panic attacks: An ICU nurse gets the vaccine after a rough year

·4 min read
Rage, fear, and panic attacks: An ICU nurse gets the vaccine after a rough year

When Andrea Kosloski got called in to get the COVID-19 vaccine, the intensive care nurse had to stop herself from sprinting into the Saskatoon hospital room.

"I was so excited. It's just that snippet of hope in a very, very long year," she said.

Kosloski is one of roughly 7,000 people to receive at least one dose of vaccine in Saskatchewan so far, most of them health-care workers. Nationally, about 320,000 doses have been administered, according to this tracker.

The vaccine doesn't change the nurse's workload or ease any of the precautions that she must take, but it does provide some comfort and hope — something she desperately needs after a "rough year."

The 29-year-old registered nurse gives a raw account of the pandemic's toll on her mental health.

"I was getting very angry, enraged, over the smallest things," she said. "Like, breaking things enraged."

Intense workload

Kosloski is part of a team at the Royal University Hospital that cares for COVID-19 patients, as well as victims of accidents, stabbing, strokes and other emergencies. They do all of that, while juggling additional protective equipment and following strict protocols to protect against virus transmission.

Andrea Kosloski
Andrea Kosloski

Despite the stress, the nurse finds it "thrilling" to apply science, technology and skill to solve medical puzzles and help save lives.

But COVID-19 cases are complicated and heart-wrenching, she said.

Kosloski is still haunted by listening to a patient trying to call their loved ones before being put on a breathing machine.

"The patient couldn't breathe. It was like one word at a time. And we're watching their oxygen numbers go down, and down, and down," she said. "We're waiting to intubate, and the patient said, 'No,I need to talk to every family member before you intubate me because I need to say 'Good-bye' and 'I'll see you when I wake up.'"

"You could hear the family crying on the phone through glass doors," Kosloski recalled. "I don't think there was a dry eye in the ICU that night ... I don't think I'll forget that."

WATCH | Kosloski and other front-line health-care workers describe memorable moments:

The strain isn't limited to her hospital shifts, though.

Anxiety, anger, panic

When Kosloski gets home, she is mentally exhausted from caring for COVID-19 patients and ready to collapse into the arms of her husband and son.

Instead, her four-year-old son, Chase, is confined to his room while Kosloski carefully strips off all her clothes just inside the front door, then — without touching anything — she goes straight to the shower. Her husband dons rubber gloves and puts her clothes into the washing machine.

Andrea Kosloski
Andrea Kosloski

"You run to the shower and try to scrub off anything that's on you 'cause your biggest fear when you get home is having [the virus] on you and giving it to your family," Kosloski said.

The tedious ritual has been part of the family's routine since the pandemic started.

Within months, it began to wear her down. By June, Kosloski noticed she had changed.

Rage would bubble up inside her, she said, and she would go to the gym and hit a punching bag until she collapsed. Other times, she would explode in anger and then sink into sadness and cry uncontrollably.

"And then there would come the panic attacks," she said.

WATCH | Front-line workers in Saskatchewan speak about their mental health:

A survey of 1,257 nurses and doctors caring for COVID-19 patients at 34 hospitals in China, published last March, found more than a third of the health-care workers had anxiety or insomnia, half were experiencing symptoms of depression, and most reported psychological distress. Since then, some Canadian studies have begun to track the pandemic's impact on the mental health of front-line workers.

Finding relief

Rise Strength Lab
Rise Strength Lab

Kosloski has always used physical exercise as a release, but discovered that even intense work-outs weren't enough. By September, she realized that she needed anti-depressant medication.

"And I'm pretty sure that I'm not the only health care worker that this happened to," she said.

The medication, along with meditation, have helped to stabilize her.

Chanss Lagaden/CBC
Chanss Lagaden/CBC

And now, the vaccine is providing some more relief; Kosloski said she "pretty much ran into the room" to get her first dose of the vaccine in December.

She wasn't the only excited one.

Dr. Susan Shaw, Saskatchewan Health Authority's chief medical officer, said she was "so lucky" to get her first dose of the vaccine before Christmas and called it a "huge boost."

"It has absolutely boosted my spirits and given me an energy boost, and I can feel it in the intensive care unit as well," Shaw said.

Kosloski knows the vaccine isn't a magic wand that will fix everything, and stands by the impassioned plea she made to people in November when she wrote, "We are tired. We are terrified. We need your help."

But, she said getting the shot erases one of her worries: that she would get sick from COVID-19 and be unable to care for patients.

"At least I'll be healthy to be able to take care of the people that aren't."

Mikaela Mackenzie/Winnipeg Free Press/Canadian Press
Mikaela Mackenzie/Winnipeg Free Press/Canadian Press